With both partners trying to prove a point in an argument, both can find themselves becoming stressed, however, new research finds that new ways of handling conflicts comes with age, and it often involves avoiding it altogether and just changing the subject.

Sarah Holley, an assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University, and director of its Relationships, Emotion, and Health Lab, wanted to see how couple changed in their use of a common form of communication known as the demand-withdraw pattern, which is believed to be destructive for relationships. When a couple communicates in this way, one partner will try to discuss a problem, usually by expressing criticism of the other's behavior and demanding a change, while the other partner will try to avoid the discussion and withdraw.

To see how couples used this form of communication over time, Holley followed 127 middle-aged and older long-term married couples over 13 years, periodically checking in to observe their communication regarding conflicts ranging from housework to finances. She videotaped these 15-minute conversations, noting the forms of communication they used when speaking about such loaded topics, a press release said.

She found that while demand-withdraw communication remained consistent throughout the couples over time, both husbands and wives "increased their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict," Holley said. While avoidance is normally believed to be damaging for relationships, older couples have had more time to express their disagreements, and avoidance could be a way to move the topics of conversation away from "toxic" areas and toward more neutral, pleasant areas, the researchers said. This would not be the case with younger couples, however, as they may still be trying to understand newer issues.

"This is in line with age-related shifts in socio-emotional goals," Holley said in the release. "Wherein individuals tend toward less conflict and greater goal disengagement in later life stages." She believes this is because people place less importance on arguments as they age, in an attempt to have as many positive experiences as possible.

Holley admits that the reason for heightened avoidance could be because the couples are married rather than because they are getting older, saying that "it may be that both age and marital duration play a role in increased avoidance."

Holley's previous research has shown that demand-withdraw patterns don't only exist in a stereotypical heterosexual couple where the wife nags (demands) the husband who withdraws. The pattern, which can lead to polarization between the two partners, occurred in gay and lesbian couples she studied in 2010 also.

In that study she found that "strong support for the partner who desires more change ... will be much more likely to occupy the demanding role, whereas the partner who desires less change — and therefore may benefit from maintaining the status quo — will be more likely to occupy the withdrawing role."


Holley S, Haase C, Levenson R. Age-Related Changes in Demand-Withdraw Communication Behaviors. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2013.