Do You (or Your Partner) Always Need to Have the Last Word?

Research into how to put understanding first, no matter how hard it may be.

Posted May 31, 2016

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Whether it’s in an angry exchange of text messages, a face-to-face argument, or a shouting match on the phone, it’s natural to want to be the one to get in the last, definitive word. However, during the heat of an argument, that last word may be the worst—and not the best—way to end a clash.

Perhaps we’ve all been too heavily influenced by mental images from on-screen romances in which an offended partner delivers the perfect retort before making a dramatic exit and slamming the door. The partner left behind then typically comes to the stunning realization that he or she is in the wrong, and contritely seeks forgiveness.

In real life, arguments rarely follow such a neat, scripted pattern. Real-world conflict can be messy, hurtful, and damaging to relationships, but particularly so when partners play a one-upmanship game during their battle. You figure that if you can just come up with that phenomenal statement of the “truth,” you can set your partner straight. Unfortunately, strategizing during a romantic dispute only erodes feelings of trust and good faith. You may be “right” but you’ve only caused your partner to feel that you care less about the relationship and more about winning.

Ample relationship research shows that destructive conflict resolution is the most damaging way to handle the inevitable differences that arise between people who love each other. Wanting to have the last word is very much related to the attack-mode mentality central to destructive conflict resolution, in which you take on your partner rather than the difference in viewpoints the two of you have. Conflict doesn’t have to be damaging to a relationship—in fact, according to recent research, it may even help keep a relationship healthy and vital.

University of California, Berkeley psychologists Amie Gordon and Serena Chen (2016) examined the factors that allow couples to argue without damaging their relationship quality—and perhaps even improving it. Their central thesis was that because “misunderstanding between partners often lies at the heart of conflicts,” then “conflict between romantic partners is detrimental to relationship quality only when people do not feel understood by their partners” (p. 240). The feeling of being understood not only reduces the chances that you’ll argue with your partner, but it can mitigate the negative feelings that accompany a fight.

Following on Gordon and Chen’s main hypothesis, focusing on the argument detracts from your ability to hear what your partner is actually saying which, in turn, shows that you understand that individual. Having the last word might make you feel better, temporarily, but your partner will emerge unhappier and less trusting of you, making it harder to eventually restore the equilibrium that preceded the argument.

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 better understood could retain previous feelings of satisfaction after an argument. Rather than rely on the typical college student sample alone (although they did for one of their studies), the researchers sampled from a nationally-recruited range of adults in long-term relationships.

The researchers focused on the way partners felt during conflict. Although the behavioral approach of counting types of communication used in many studies of conflict resolution has certain advantages, it fails to capture the perceived feelings of being understood that Gordon and Chen hypothesized to be so central to successful conflict resolution. In other words, a researcher may count the number of negative statements you hurl at your partner, but if your partner doesn’t take them seriously, do they really count as an attack? On the other hand, if your partner knows just how to make jabs at you, the researcher may not even record these statements as being accusatory or derogatory. That “last word” may qualify as one of these successfully camouflaged attacks: It doesn’t sound so bad to an outsider, but it cuts you to the core.

The most intriguing study in the Berkeley series involved creating 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: “Imagine that you and your partner are having a fight about [a topic identified by the participant]. During this fight, we would like you to imagine that your partner is able to understand your thoughts, feelings, and point of view. That is, you feel understood by your partner. Please take a moment to imagine this fight. Picture where you are, what you and your partner are saying, and how you are feeling.” In the other condition, participants were told to imagine their partner did not understand them.

Across the entire set of studies, the results consistently pointed to that sense of perceived understanding counteracting the potentially negative effects of conflicts. Indeed, Gordon and Chen maintain that perceived understanding becomes the buffer that allows partners to argue without feeling hopeless about their relationship. Perhaps this is why, when you see couples that stay together despite what looks to you like a miserable relationship, you’re not getting the full picture. They may bicker constantly but still be able to go to bed feeling content with each other.

This fascinating set of studies shows just what’s wrong with playing to win in an argument. Focusing on yourself and not your partner’s feelings not only keeps you from coming up with a positive resolution in the moment, but over the long term, it can cause your partner to become more emotionally distant.

Long-term fulfillment in relationships takes work, but as long as that work includes trying to understand your partner, you’ll care less about “winning" arguments and more about preserving the good feelings that allow your connection to stay strong.

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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

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2016