More than 96% of Americans marry at least once in their lives. This is an astounding statistic. Moreover, marriage is not only frequent, it’s also potent: how well or how poorly these marriages fare has huge implications for both spouse’s subjective sense of personal well-being, physical health, and mental health. Hence, it is critical to ask what contributes to developing satisfied marriages.
In a recent study (Bloch, Haase, & Levenson, in press), we had the opportunity to examine one contributing factor to marital satisfaction: how couples handle negative emotions that arise during conflict. Starting in 1989, Dr. Robert Levenson’s research team began following middle-aged and older, heterosexual, long-term married couples. Couples came into the lab, where researchers observed them engaging in marital conflict, while simultaneously measuring various aspects of their emotional responding (including their bodily arousal, their facial expressions, and their self-reported feelings).
From this rich data set, we were able to identify how quickly spouses were able to recover emotionally from “hot button” moments during their conflicts. What we found is that the happiest marriages were the ones in which wives were able to calm quickly during conflict. Based on this finding in isolation, one may presume that wives matter in this context because they are better at regulating emotions.
Importantly, however, this is not where the story ends. We actually found that wives and husbands were equally good at calming down emotionally during conflict. So why is it that only emotion regulation in wives appeared to matter for marital satisfaction?
We believe that this is due to gender stereotypes about emotion, which perpetuate the notion that women are the emotional centers of a marriage. Historically, women have been presumed to be responsible for maintaining the emotional balance in a marriage; in contrast, men have been presumed to be emotionally illiterate. These preconceptions may have been especially active in the cohort of couples that we studied, many of whom were marrying in a time when books like John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus were dominating the bestseller charts. We believe that these stereotypes drove spouses in our study to selectively attend to emotions of wives during conflict—hence the relationship between emotional calm down and marital satisfaction in wives, but not husbands.
The good news on this front? These perceptions may be malleable. We hope that gendered stereotypes about emotion continue to evolve in a way that allows couples to be more flexible in looking to both husbands and wives as emotional contributors to marriages. We speculate—with optimism—that replicating this study with a younger sample would reveal that the gender differences we found are less pronounced.
In the study, we were also interested in understanding why calming down emotionally during conflict serves marital satisfaction so well. We found that wives in our study who calmed quickly were able to employ constructive communication strategies, such as clearly expressing feelings and suggesting solutions/compromises to the problem at hand (this contrasts with destructive communication strategies, such as criticizing and blaming, that reign when conflict is at its most heated). Importantly, constructive communication is more likely to result in conflict resolution, thereby positively impacting marital satisfaction.
There are several important take-aways of this finding. First, the more efficiently that couples can move away from fiery moments in conflict, and toward more cool, calm, collaborative, and constructive moments, they will be better able to engage in productive conflict resolution. Second, this highlights that conflict is not, in fact, an inherently bad thing; in fact, we believe that conflict—and the negative emotion it naturally generates—can be invaluable in highlighting trouble spots in relationships and paving the way for conflict resolution, ultimately supporting happier relationships. We suggest that how couples respond to negative emotions during conflict is what is critical. To the extent that couples can use negativity to navigate toward relationship repair, negative emotion during conflict can be highly useful.
Finally, we emphasize that this study is descriptive, not prescriptive. In other words, the pattern of findings—particularly suggesting that wives bear the burden of managing emotion in relationships—is what we observed, not what has to be. We believe that, regardless of one’s gender or generation, spouses can work consciously to attend to both partners’ emotional contributions to marital dynamics. Furthermore, spouses can put effort into learning and practicing skills to help downshift from fiery emotions to more calm and constructive discussion during conflicts. Whether couples choose to work with a marital therapist or choose to embark on these efforts on their own, we believe that it’s very possible to make change even to highly engrained, destructive communication habits in relationships.
© Lian Bloch, Ph.D.