Want to save your marriage? Pay attention to how you fight.
According to a new study, the style that couples use to fight can predict how likely divorce is for those couples.
The researchers who headed up a recent University of Michigan study found that three styles of fighting characterized conflict--destructive, constructive, and withdrawal. Though destructive fighting (yelling and screaming) most often led to divorce, researchers also found that couples where one partner fought constructively (that is, tried to solve the problem calmly) and the other partner withdrew emotionally, or left the fight, also faced potential problems in their relationship.
This was the longest and largest research study to date that concentrated on marital conflict--it spanned 16 years and studied 373 couples. Though 46 percent of couples had divorced by the final year of the study, those that remained together were likelier to be engaged in conflicts in which both partners used constructive behaviors. Kira Birditt, one of the study's co-authors, helped us make sense of this data:
You had two goals with this study. Can you outline what those were?
We were interested in whether the conflict styles couples use in the first year predict if they stay married, and if couples stay consistent in their conflict strategies over time.
You refer to three styles of fighting, or "conflict patterns"--"destructive," "constructive," and "withdrawal." Can you describe them?
Destructive strategies are like yelling and screaming, constructive are calmly discussing the situation, trying to find solutions, and we looked at two avoidant strategies -- one was keeping quiet, the other was leaving the situation.
How did you measure this? Did you put couples in a room and wait until they fought? Or bring up something they typically tend to fight about and watch them go at it?
They were asked to report a recent conflict and then to describe the conflict. They had a questionnaire asking how often they used a series of strategies.
What were your major findings? Which were the most surprising?
Strategies couples uses in the first year do predict how long they stayed married. Destructive patterns are bad for your marriage. We saw interactions between strategies. We thought constructive must be good for marriage, but we found that constructive strategies mixed with another spouse leaving the room, were actually more likely to lead to divorce. It's important both partners use constructive patterns. People do change over time, but the changes were more visible in women.
Why might a constructive fighting style mixed with a withdrawal style be bad for a marriage?
It might just mean that your spouse is showing a lack of commitment to the relationship--one spouse wants to fix things and the other one is leaving.
You found that overall, men used less destructive fighting methods and more constructive methods than women. This seems counter-intuitive, since we typically think of women as being better communicators than men. Did this finding surprise you?
It's not surprising in the marital literature -- women tend to use more destructive styles in other studies too. I think of women having less power and being less aggressive but that's not the case here.
You also found that, over time, women's use of destructive methods of fighting, such as withdrawal, lessened while the men's use of destructive behavior remained the same. Why do you think that is?
Women are less satisfied with the relationship and tend to have more complaints as they do more around the house or have more they would like to change, whereas men would like to keep the status quo -- so if they have a really traditional relationship, women might have more to complain about in the beginning of the marriage and it's solved over time. Also, destructive couples are more likely to divorce.
Black couples reported more withdrawal than white couples. Why do you think this is?
We're not sure -- one idea is that black couples are more likely to divorce and are more worried about conflict, but I really don't know.
You found that the majority of fighting styles had similar effects on divorce for blacks and whites. Were you surprised by this?
I thought we'd find some different things because black and white marriages were so different in all these other ways, in terms of socio-economics -- I thought it'd translate to larger differences in emotional things, but it didn't.
You found that individual behaviors and patterns of behaviors between partners in the first year of marriage predicted higher divorce rates 16 years later. That's a pretty scary finding, but does it also that mean couples can possibly prevent their own divorces down the road if they identify these patterns in the first year of marriage and deal with them?
I would hope so. I would hope that we could use this literature to help people. But who knows? It'd be interesting to study that.
What can couples take away from this study?
I think it's important to try to work together to constructively solve problems. The closer you are, the more problems you have but you have to be really careful about how you deal with it when you have them. You should think before you react and try to say things calmly when you're upset and it's better to talk about problems than to avoid them or to scream or yell.