The idea that avoiding conflict is good for marriages goes against conventional wisdom
. In fact, avoiding conflict has previously been described as maladaptive behavior. Now, it appears that conventional wisdom may be wrong - again.
A study, recently published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, examined age-related changes in first-marriage couples. One hundred twenty-seven couples between the ages of 40-50 and married for at least 15 years or between the ages of 60-70 and married at least 35 years were followed for 13 years. These couples' conversations about areas of relationship conflict were analyzed for a set of specific behaviors termed demand-withdrawal communication patterns. 1
Demand behaviors consist of blame and pressure for change.
- Blame includes blaming, accusing, criticizing, using critical sarcasm or character assassination.
- Pressure for change includes requests, demands, nags, other pressure techniques.
Withdrawal behaviors consist of withdrawal and avoidance.
- Withdrawal includes withdrawing, becoming silent, refusing to discuss topic, disengaging from discussion.
- Avoidance includes changing topics, diverting attention, delaying discussion.
For both husbands and wives, the results showed a longitudinal pattern of increasing avoidance behaviors over time and stability in all other demand and withdraw behaviors.2 In other words, disagreements became less likely to result in heated arguments. Demand-withdraw communication may have occurred, but avoidance behavior predominated.
Studies by Gottman and others3 offer insights about couples' tendencies to disengage from unattainable goals or, put another way, mellow with age.
- Heated arguments may be viewed as relatively unimportant or as serving little purpose.
- Long-standing areas of conflict are accepted as unattainable goals.
- Disengagement from offending situations and unattainable goals increases.
- Benefits to relationships and to personal well-being and physical health of avoiding conflict are recognized.
Idealism of youth
Although avoidance offers respite from conflict, younger couples aspire to resolve conflict, and, ideally, it's worth a try. Occasionally, resolution/compromise is achieved. Over time, resolution-resistant areas of conflict are identified and avoidance of these topics becomes a more attractive alternative. Good news: Avoidance of conflict is not necessarily a maladaptive cop out.
Drive for self-determination maintains despite efforts by a nagging wife/domineering husband to change a partner. Demand behaviors (maladaptive) not only fail to inspire desired change but also provoke withdrawal behaviors (maladaptive). Conflict avoidance, on the other hand, appears to benefit marital satisfaction, as well as personal well-being and physical health.
As regular readers of this blog know, spouses are not renovation projects and self-responsibility is the key to marital satisfaction. Regarding conflict avoidance, the thing that seems maladaptive about avoidance is its seeming passivity. Self-responsibility is far from passive. Self-responsibile spouses practice emotional maturity, take responsibility for their own happiness and unhappiness, take command of their own negative emotional reactions, insecurities and dark moods. See previous posts: Forget Compromise, The Three Best Reasons to Stop Blaming Your Spouse, The One and Only Marital Obligation, How Did We End Up Here?
1. Sarah H. Holley, et.al., "Age-Related Changes in Demand-Withdraw Communication Behaviors," Journal of Marriage and Family 75 (August 2013): 822-836.
2. Ibid., p. 822.
3.For citations, see Journal of Marriage and Family article.