Consuming alcohol can both benefit and harm romantic relationships. For example, drinking can be a way for couple members to connect—perhaps over a bottle of wine—and share their week. However, if someone believes their partner drinks too much, it can strain the relationship. Some recent research1 explored how perceiving one’s partner as having a drinking problem might be associated with relationship quality among college students. In addition, the researchers examined the use of drinking regulation strategies, or the behaviors that people use to try to change their partner’s drinking (such as yelling or withdrawing).
Entries in conflict (46)
Researchers asked more than 1000 U.S. married couples about their desired and actual sexual frequency. Spouses who weren’t getting as much sex as they desired were less satisfied and thought about ending their marriages more often, had less positive communication with their partners, and reported more conflict. Similarly, the spouses of sexually unfulfilled individuals reported these same negative outcomes (i.e., if you aren’t getting the sex you desire, your partner is less satisfied etc.). While these effects are likely reciprocal, getting the sex you want is associated with better relationship quality for both you and your partner.
Which Couples Can Fight Intensely and Still Reach Satisfying Resolutions? Relationship Matters Podcast #31
In the 31st installment of SAGE’s Relationship Matters podcast, produced and hosted by Dr. Bjarne Holmes of Champlain College, Dr. Keith Sanford (Baylor University) discusses his recent research on how relationship conflict intensity affects whether or not the couple resolves the topic of that conflict.
The researchers asked 734 couples to focus on a recent conflict and answer questions regarding the types of negative behaviors they engaged in, the intensity of the fight, as well as any type of caring or “soft” emotions they might have used during the disagreement. Couples were also asked about how they currently felt about their relationship, including their current level of ongoing discord, when that discord peaked, and whether they had engaged in any attempts to repair the relationship.
One of the more alarming trends in the adolescent and young adult dating world over the past few decades is the increase in reports of dating violence. Specifically, more than 50% of adolescents with dating experience report some past dating violence, whether as perpetrator or victim.1 Moreover, today’s adolescent dating violence, which often results from conflicts that get out of hand, generally shows no gender bias: both young women and young men are equally likely to perpetrate (and be victims). When it comes to public health issues, the prevalence of teen dating violence is a pretty big deal, which is why the Centers for Disease Control has an entire section of their website dedicated to educating people about healthy teen relationships, and researchers are giving considerable attention to the issue.
Why does humor sometimes defuse tension and bring you closer to your partner but other times leave you back-pedaling and saying, “I was just kidding!”? After observing couples engage in a conflict, researchers determined that the partners of individuals who used more affiliative humor (e.g., funny stories that emphasize the connection between partners) and less aggressive humor (e.g., sarcasm, criticism) felt closer after the discussion, thought the conflict was better resolved, and were more satisfied with their relationships overall.
When your partner behaves badly, your first instinct may be to retaliate. What could help you respond more healthily? In a series of studies, romantically-involved individuals responded to scenarios wherein their partner acted in a hurtful way (e.g., bringing them to a family reunion but then ignoring them). People who took their partner’s perspective (vs. their own) reacted with more love- and caring-related emotions, better understood their partner’s viewpoint, and tried to find positive solutions to the issue. Perspective-takers also responded with less anger, blamed their partner less, and avoided lashing out. Thus, perspective-taking can help you navigate relationship conflict.1
1Arriaga, X. B., & Rusbult, C. E. (1998). Standing in my partner’s shoes: Partner perspective taking and reactions to accommodative dilemmas. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 927-948.
Imagine that in a recent discussion your partner said to you, “I get really frustrated when you interrupt me sometimes. I know you don’t do it on purpose, but it makes me feel like you’re not listening or that my feelings aren’t important. Maybe in the future you could wait to see if I’ve had my say before you share your thoughts?” How would this make you feel? Perhaps you might appreciate that your partner put his/her concerns fairly nicely (s/he could have, for example, said, “For crying out loud, stop interrupting me! Don’t you ever listen to me or care about my feelings? It makes me wonder why I even bother with you!”), but chances are it would still feel bad in the short-term to find out that your partner is upset about something you’re doing. But now imagine that you pay attention to what your partner said, and over time you make sure that you listen to and acknowledge your partner’s thoughts without interrupting. It’s likely that down the road, the two of you will be much more satisfied with your relationship, in part because of the direct way your partner communicated with you when s/he asked you to change your behavior.
Communication is an important part of romantic relationships, especially when navigating conflict or when trying to change a partner’s behavior. Although dealing with these issues can sometimes be distressing, it can also serve as an opportunity for you and your partner to learn about each other and improve your relationship.1 Indeed, by the end of this article, I hope it is clear that what matters most is not the presence of conflict itself, but rather how you and your partner handle the conflict (i.e., the communication strategies you use).
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.
My wife and I don’t always agree on the best way to parent our two kids. We sometimes have different ideas about how to broaden their palates, limit screen time (here’s hoping one of those freakish talking animals turns on Diego very soon), and how to blend our respective family holiday traditions. When we’re grappling with these and other parenting issues, we engage in what researchers call co-parental communication, which generally refers to how she and I communicate with one another and our children when parenting.
It’s no surprise that television shows have a lot of relationship conflict in them. Would you watch Grey’s Anatomy if every time someone had a problem with his or her partner they sat down and had a calm, serious discussion? Probably not. I don’t know about you, but I want to see some EMOTION! It is this need for drama that encourages writers and producers to give us shows full of relational conflict, but what does watching this high-conflict type of television do to our relationships?
Depending on the type of shows you watch and the types of conflicts under consideration (e.g., family conflict vs. romantic relationship conflict), there will be between 1.05 and 8.79 conflicts per hour of television.1,2 In addition, female characters are usually the ones who start the fights, place blame, and use mean tactics (e.g., patronizing comments, chastisement, and defensiveness) to try and get their way in conflicts. Right now, some of you may be thinking, so what? Conflict exists in all relationships, right?
If you’ve ever tried to work out a problem with your partner, you know it can be a situation with tension, heightened negative emotion and perhaps a face-off of epic proportions until one of you “wins.” If one partner disengages by avoiding the issue or not treating it seriously, the other partner may feel that the discussion falls flat and nothing is truly resolved. The cooperation of both partners is essential when coping with disagreements; it plays a role in how emotions rise and fall during and after conflict.
I’ve noticed that, come speech time at weddings (my favorite part), there is a certain piece of advice that will almost certainly be uttered into the microphone. Whether it’s the father of the bride, a long-married matron of honor, or the groom’s batty Aunt Rose, someone always seems to advise the cheery newlyweds to “never go to bed angry.” Does this little nugget of wisdom truly deserve to surpass “be kind to each other” or “do the dishes without being asked”? Probably so; if you’re concerned about getting a good night’s sleep, “never go to bed angry” just might be the best advice out there.
You: “I’m sorry I was late picking you up today…”
Your partner responds: “That’s okay; it happens...”
Your partner thinks: “But it always seems to happen to YOU!”
Wouldn’t it be great to know what your partner was thinking about during a disagreement? Having a sense of his or her thoughts during a conflict could provide an important window into how your partner feels about you and might indicate how satisfied (or dissatisfied) your partner is with the relationship overall. Similarly, what your partner thinks about during a conflict might be associated with your satisfaction as well. For example, you might pick up on their annoyance with your tardiness, which might make you annoyed with them!
Relationship researchers would also love to “get inside your head” during an argument. But if you are in the midst of resolving a conflict by talking with your partner, how would you simultaneously describe what you’re thinking about?
How did you sleep last night? Did you wake up this morning feeling refreshed and energized, or were you fatigued and sluggish? Your answers to these questions may provide insight into how you will interact with your romantic partner today.
Sometimes people’s eyes get wide when I tell them that I’m a psychologist who studies dreams, and they immediately start confiding in me about their “weird/crazy/strange/vivid” dreams that often include similar themes (like their teeth falling out). Then they ask me what it means, and to their disappointment, I tell them that based on the limited scientific data on dreams, we just don’t know. Despite what some artists, philosophers, or “psychics” might tell you, there’s no universal codebook that helps you translate content from a dream into direct meaning. Instead, the human mind constructs dreams based on unique experiences (some psychologists have said that dreams are like mental fingerprints). Perhaps someone had their teeth painfully pulled at the dentist or wore braces at a young age, and perhaps another person got a tooth chipped (or knocked out) while playing sports. Those two people with different “teeth experiences” could form dreams with very different meanings, even if they both contain teeth as a central image. The dreams you have likely represents your unique conception rather than some universal symbolic meaning.
But what about relationship dreams?
My brother is married to a passive aggressive woman and he is very unhappy in his relationship. I have a friend who just got engaged to a passive-aggressive woman. Both my friend and my brother have developed quite a few negative personality traits that make me not want to be around or even talk to them. Do you think it's their true natures coming out (ages 35-40) or the result of relationships with passive aggressive women?
Great question! I am sorry that you are having a difficult time being around your friend and brother right now. Passive-aggressive behaviors, which are hostile and resistant actions that a person expresses in very subtle or indirect ways, are not fun to experience. For example, your sister-in-law might give your brother the “cold shoulder” to show she is angry and defiant rather than telling him about the real reason she is she upset about something.
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.
I kicked off SPSP this year by attending the close relationships pre-conference where Dr. Emily Impett (my mentor) received the Early Career Award. In her award address, Dr. Impett presented research on how we may give up our self-interests to meet our relationship partner’s needs, and when this can be beneficial and when it is may be less ideal.