Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Rat in the Spat

Cites the work of Ronald C. Kessler (University of Michigan) in the 'Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,' who reports that in those married more than eight years, the frequency of fighting is a more powerful predictor of separation and divorce than whether you fight fair or dirty. Frequent disagreements a marker for some hidden problem; Not clear if avoiding issues sparks marital conflict; Details.

It's not simply how you and your partner argue--whether you fight fair or dirty. It's how much you argue that governs whether the union will endure.

Marriage experts have known for some time that the combat style of couples can kill the relationship. While conflict is inevitable in modern matches, those who tackle differences with defensiveness, anger, and stubbornness end up divorced.

That, say University of Michigan researchers, is true only for the newly married. For those married more than eight years, the frequency of fighting is a more powerful predictor of separation and divorce.

"There's lots of divorce in the early years of marriage;" reports sociologist Ronald C. Kessler, Ph.D., "Half of all couples who divorce do so in the first eight years. It's a time when couples are working things out; there's lots of negotiation going on, and arguing is part of it." That's when a negative fighting style has a big impact.

After that, "it's irrelevant whether you fight good or bad. If you fight frequently, something is not being worked out. Your wrangles may reflect fundamental differences."

Kessler and colleagues studied 691 married couples and followed them over a three-year span. At the start, they had been married from less than one to more than 45 years. Over the three years, 27 couples divorced and another 34 separated--29 of whom eventually got back together.

In general, couples married nine or more years argue less often than those married eight years or under, though the arguments they have are quite acrimonious. Yet, the negativity is less distressful to them than a rise in the frequency of fighting.

Perhaps, Kessler suggests in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (Vol. 10.), frequent disagreements at that point are a marker for some hidden problem. He suspects that one of the partners may have an underlying depression that adversely affects marital functioning.

The average married couple, it appears, has one serious fight a month, and innumerable squabbles. But don't think you can save your marriage by avoiding conflict. Couples who disagree the most frequently are those who are the most avoidant--and are at the highest risk for separation and divorce. It's not clear whether avoiding issues sparks marital conflict. Or whether withdrawal during the course of conflict is most detrimental.