According to one widely-held view on couple relationships, how you argue is far more important than what you happen to be arguing about. Sex, careers, communication, toothpaste cap? No matter. The key to a good relationship is HOW you approach and discuss these issues, more so than anything special or difficult about the issue itself. There is a lot to recommend this view: couples benefit from following good ground rules for disagreeing, for example, and the emotional tone that couples take when discussing their problems gives us real information about where their relationship is headed.
But adopting this approach overlooks the possibility that some conflicts really are different -- and couples failing to recognize this fact may put themselves at a real disadvantage. An excellent study by Lauren Papp and her colleagues identifies two conflicts that might be uniquely toxic in couples' relationships, and toxic in different ways: one takes a toll because it happens so much, and the other is damaging not because it is so frequent but because it is an important topic that never really goes away.
To study couples' everyday disagreements, Dr. Papp and her team asked husbands and wives from 100 couples -- married for 12 years on average, most with two or three children, and bringing in about $50,000 in household income -- to keep a diary for 15 days in which they recorded their "differences of opinion." For each disagreement they had, spouses then provided details on how long this particular bout lasted, the feelings it generated, and how they left the issue. Asking people about a disagreement shortly after it occurred is demanding, but doing so is likely to be far more accurate than simply asking spouses what they disagree about in general, when the conflicts have faded into distant memory.
Seven hundred and forty-eight conflicts later, three groups of conflicts can be identified -- at least in terms of frequency:
Least Frequent, ranging from six percent to 12 percent of all conflicts: annoying personality styles and traits, friends, intimacy and sex, commitment and expectations for the relationship, and relatives. Bear in mind that these couples had already negotiated 12 years of marriage without divorcing, suggesting that many of these core issues had been managed pretty well by them.
Moderately Frequent, ranging from 16 percent to 25 percent of all conflicts: annoying habits, money and spending, demands relating to work and jobs, leisure and recreation, communication and listening, and chores.
Most Frequent: Children, by a wide margin. Nearly 40 percent of all conflicts involved kids: what the child is doing and why, disagreements about what to do in response to what the child has done, how to discipline the child, who will take care of the child, disputes over removing vegetables from the child's ears, and so on.
This last point might be disturbing to younger couples who do not yet have children, but it is likely to be old news to veteran parents. Children are the source of many wonderful things, but they also keep parents on their toes by creating all kinds of situations that prompt partners to somehow coordinate their actions if they are to manage the situation well. Conflict between mom and dad no doubt arise when one or both parents are trying to do something else -- working, cooking, parenting other children, talking on the telephone, resting -- when the child requires one parent to disengage immediately and attend to some new circumstance. Who disengages, whose turn it is to take care of the child, who is responsible at that moment, who is at fault, who is free to help out, and so on, all become the grist for this particular mill.
But it is another problem -- money, spending, wages and salary, bills -- that absorbs more time than all the others, that is likely to be rated as recurrent and important, that instigates feelings of depression and outbursts of anger, and that is most likely to be set aside for discussion at a later time -- even despite demanding more problem-solving efforts from the partners than problems that do not involve money. To make matters worse, conflicts over money often arise along with conflicts about work -- two common sources of stress and tension that are unlikely to go away on their own accord. Collected 10 years ago, long before the recent downturn in the economy, these data probably underestimate the kinds of financial tensions that many couples now face.
In the end, we learn something important about two unique problems that many couples confront, and about how to meet them head-on:
Resolving conflicts involving children will likely involve seamless tag-teaming and coordination around the immediate demands that children place on couples -- and managing the feeling that you and your partner may never have as much time or patience as you might want.
Resolving conflicts involving money will require many tactics, including an open dialog about finances and work within the relationship, respect and appreciation for the work and money you do have, productive conversations about careful budgeting and controlled spending, anticipating the anger and frustration you are likely to experience -- and managing the feeling that you and your partner may never have as much money as you might want.
Neither problem will be easy -- they are common for a reason, after all -- but partners who understand the unique demands that these two issues create position themselves for a smoother course in their relationship.
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