Dealing with Marital Conflict
A study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and published in the October issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family shows that the way a married couple does or does not handle their quarrels is a key predictor of divorce. People generally assume that couples who fight a lot would probably end up in a divorce, but the research shows that it is the marriages where only one spouse is willing to attempt to solve disagreements constructively and the other spouse does not reciprocate that have a far greater chance of an eventual divorce.
The ongoing survey analyzed data from 373 participant couples who applied for marriage licenses in Michigan’s Wayne County in 1986. Tracking the couples as to how frequently they fought and how they resolved conflicts at annual intervals for over 16 years showed that the pattern of one spouse not participating in problem solving has a damaging effect on the longevity of marriage. Conversely, when both spouses were willing to engage in constructive ways to solve their problems, there was less risk of divorce. The observed behaviors led to predictable outcomes most of the time.
At the time of marriage, most of the surveyed couples were happy, with nearly 30% of the husbands and 21% of the wives reporting zero conflicts in the first year of marriage. Given enough time however, the picture was not so rosy with nearly half (46%) of the couples in the survey being divorced by year 16.
Surprising to some, data showed that it was the group of husbands who exhibited more constructive behaviors and fewer destructive behaviors in relationship problem solving than their wives did. The husbands’ behaviors remained more constant over time than their wives did and the wives were more likely to use destructive strategies or withdraw. The data suggested that because relationships are more critical to women, they may be more likely to withdraw from conflict or use destructive strategies at first, but given more time they would likely realize the behavior is detrimental to the stability of their marriages. This suggests that additional future research on the complex dynamics of conflict between husbands and wives might help further identify more specific problems that cause spouses to withdraw or use destructive behaviors early in a marriage.