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Cool Things Down to Keep Your Relationship Hot: The Importance of Conflict Recovery

Steve and Sarah – a hypothetical married couple – don’t argue often; however, when they do, they can’t seem to “forgive and forget.” In dwelling on their relationship conflicts and dissatisfactions, negativity colors their interactions and their relationship suffers. Tom and Tricia, on the other hand, have disagreements quite a bit. But unlike Steve and Sarah, Tom and Tricia are able to express their feelings constructively and, at the end of the day, put their problems aside and show their love for one another. As these scenarios suggest, it’s not just whether conflicts happen that affects how we feel about our relationships; rather, partners’ ability to recover from such negative experiences may most powerfully impact relationship functioning. 

Conflict recovery refers to the ability to isolate and disengage from relationship conflict when necessary. For example, say you have an argument with your partner because he/she overspent again. Later that evening, the two of you are supposed to get together with friends. Even though you may still harbor some residual negative feelings from the situation earlier, you recognize that it is not the time to restate your displeasure with your partner’s money management. You are able to disengage from the conflict in order to enjoy the evening and interact harmoniously with your partner.

The scenario above illustrates why conflict recovery is important: if you had continued to be upset with your partner, the evening would have been sour and nothing would have been resolved. In other words, perseverating on disagreements, especially when it is no longer appropriate to do so (for example, when the timing is bad or the problem is unfixable), may encourage additional negative emotions and interactions with one’s partner that ultimately harm the relationship. It is easy to imagine how holding a grudge or being upset with your partner for a prolonged time would make it difficult to engage in affectionate, positive interactions that build happy relationships.

Researchers critically examined how conflict recovery might foster better relationship satisfaction in a sample of 73 young adults (the “target participants”) and their romantic partners.1 In the study, the couples engaged in two videotaped discussions. First, they had a 10-minute conflict discussion during which they tried to resolve a significant problem in their relationship (e.g., family budget, dealing with in-laws, etc.). Second, they engaged in a positive “cool down” task where they discussed areas in their relationship that they agreed upon (e.g., how much they enjoyed a recent vacation). Later, independent observers rated each partner’s conflict recovery on a scale of 1 to 5, based on the person’s ability to make a complete transition from the conflict to the cool down discussion. For example, bringing up new problems, refusing to talk, or disputing the partner’s suggestions in the cool down discussion earned a low conflict recovery score whereas making frequent and substantial positive contributions or building on the partner’s positive comments earned a high conflict recovery score. 

The researchers also had data on the target participants’ childhood attachment style and looked at how it impacted their conflict recovery. Unsurprisingly, individuals who were rated as securely attached recovered from conflict better – they knew that in the “cool down” task, it was time to put aside negative feelings and transition to positive aspects. Interestingly, it was the partners of such individuals that seemed to benefit: having a partner skilled at conflict recovery resulted in feeling more positive emotions in the relationship and greater relationship satisfaction.

Overall, this research supports the notion of conflict recovery as a relationship-enhancing process that helps protect couples from the damaging effects of lingering conflict. Furthermore, it provides evidence that a partner’s relationship skills and behaviors can influence your own feelings about the relationship – which might steer you both towards health and happiness or doom and gloom. So the next time you and your beloved are caught in a heated argument, try to cool things down and reflect upon each others’ good aspects: generating warm and fuzzy feelings might be the key to keeping your relationship ablaze for years to come.

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1Salvatore, J. E., Kuo, S., Steele, R. D., Simpson, J. A., & Collins, W. (2011). Recovering from conflict in romantic relationships: A developmental perspective. Psychological Science22(3), 376-383. doi:10.1177/0956797610397055

Jana Lembke - Science Of Relationships articles
Jana's research interests include close relationships and positive emotions. She is most interested in the impact of individual-level variables and interpersonal behavior on personal well-being and optimal relationship functioning. 

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