In midlife, our close relationships can experience considerable strain. The stress of work, family responsibilities, finances, and health problems can make you tense and irritable. Before you know it, you're in an acrid disagreement with the person you love the most. How did this happen? You were hoping to have a relaxing dinner and now it's turned into an emotional mess.
As you attempt to restore harmony, you search through your recall of what just happened to find what to say that will get things back on track. You wish the problem would just go away and don't know how to make that happen.
You may be surprised to learn, then, that conflict doesn't have to be damaging at all to a relationship and, according to recent research, it may even help keep the relationship healthy and vital. University of California Berkeley psychologists Amie Gordon and Serena Chen (2016) decided to examine the factors that allow couples to argue without destroying their relationship quality or perhaps even improving it. They believe that conflicts are caused by misunderstandings, and "conflict between romantic partners is detrimental to relationship quality only when people do not feel understood by their partners" (p. 240). It's fine to engage in the inevitable conflict with your partner that accompanies any close relationship, as long as you can communicate a message of understanding in the process.
Gordon and Chen investigated their hypothesis through a series of seven studies, ranging from correlational to experimental, in which they assessed whether partners who felt more understood could emerge from a conflict retaining their previous feelings of satisfaction. Rather than rely on the typical college student sample alone (although they did for one of the studies), they sampled from a nationally recruited range of adults in long-term relationships.
Key to their method was a focus on how partners perceived the conflict, not necessarily how they behaved. The most intriguing study in the Berkeley series involved creating, experimentally, the feeling of being understood during an argument. Participants were asked to imagine themselves in a fight with their partner under one of two conditions. In the "understood" condition, they were told to imagine their partner could see how they felt, and in the misunderstood condition, participants were told to imagine their partner did not understand them.
The results consistently pointed to that sense of perceived understanding as counteracting the potentially negative effects of conflict. Indeed, It's this sense of being understood that becomes the buffer against feeling hopeless about your relationship. Perhaps this is why, when you see couples staying together despite what looks to you like a miserable relationship, you're not getting the full picture. They may bicker constantly all day long but they can still go to bed feeling content with each other.
In midlife, we may have more stresses that cause conflicts to bubble up during the course of an ordinary day. However, we also have greater and deeper knowledge of our intimate partners. As long as you use that knowledge to show that you "get" your partner's point of view, that conflict may turn out to deepen your relationship even further.
Gordon, A. M., & Chen, S. (2016). Do you get where I'm coming from?: Perceived understanding buffers against the negative impact of conflict on relationship satisfaction. Journal Of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(2), 239-260. doi:10.1037/pspi0000039