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How Your Family Upbringing Helps or Hinders Marital Conflict Resolution

If you are in a romantic relationship, it is nearly inevitable that you will experience conflict with your partner at some point. How you deal with conflict influences your relationship. When disagreements arise, some people manage them better than others. For example, some are able to talk through their problems in a supportive and respectful manner, whereas others fail to express their concerns and resolve their disagreements. These different conflict resolution skills (or lack thereof) come from many places, but recent research in Psychological Science suggests that your family climate during your adolescence may have something to do with how you manage conflict as an adult.

How They Did It

To determine whether and how family upbringing is related to conflict resolution and marital outcomes, Dr. Rob Ackerman from the University of Texas – Dallas and colleagues analyzed data from 288 individuals and their spouses who participated in a 20-year longitudinal study of families in rural Iowa. This dataset allowed researchers to investigate the connection between positive engagement (i.e., interpersonal behavior characterized by clear communication and warmth) in adolescents’ families of origin and their romantic relationships approximately 20 years later.

As part of the Iowa Family Transitions Project, researchers videotaped families with adolescent kids on a yearly basis while family members engaged in a conflict resolution task. During the task, family members selected the issue that brought about the most conflict (e.g., chores at home), discussed the nature of the conflict, and attempted to resolve it. Researchers rated families in the video on several characteristics, such as assertiveness, warmth, listener responsiveness (e.g., paying attention to the other person), communication (e.g., effectively conveying one’s needs), and prosocial behavior (e.g., being cooperative). From these ratings, researchers created two positive engagement variables: (a) one that reflected the overall expression of family positive engagement, and (b) the (adolescent) individual’s own unique level of positive engagement with other family members. Approximately 20 years later, the researchers observed the adolescents, who were now grown, interacting with their spouses and recorded the positivity and hostility of those interactions; they also had individuals and spouses report on their marriage quality and how often they behaved negatively towards each other.

What They Found

Some key findings from this research include:

  1. Individuals who themselves expressed greater levels of positive engagement in their families as adolescents displayed and received more positive engagement in their marriages, independent of overall family engagement.
  2. Individuals from families that expressed greater levels of positive engagement displayed more positive engagement and less hostility toward their spouses 20 years later; they also reported better relationship quality and less negative behavior.
  3. Individuals from families that expressed greater levels of positive engagement had spouses who displayed more positive engagement and reported more relationship quality; these spouses also displayed less hostility and reported less negative behavior.

What the Results Mean For You

In essence, your positive family upbringing benefits your spouse. The researchers speculate that growing up in a positive family climate may bring about a supportive interpersonal style (e.g., being more caring) that evokes similar behaviors from one’s spouse down the road. It may also be that growing up in such a climate may predispose someone to seek out a similar type of spouse. Either way – it’s a win-win. All in all, this study shows that growing up in a family that is supportive and constructive in their attempts at conflict-resolution as an adolescent may be beneficial for marriage later in life.

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Ackerman, R. A., Kashy, D. A., Donnellan, M. B., Neppl, T., Lorenz, F. O., & Conger, R. D. (in press). The interpersonal legacy of a positive family climate in adolescence. Psychological Science.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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