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Approaching Conflict With Your Romantic Partner

Research finds a link between an approach motivation and how we handle conflict.

Key points

  • In a new study, researchers tested whether a writing exercise improves how spouses navigate conflict.
  • The exercise didn't make a difference, and the results didn’t support the model researchers expected.
  • Results revealed a link between approach motivation, positive reappraisal, care, and relational health.
  • The researchers pointed to the value of aiming for affirming, constructive results amid discord.
Jack Sparrow/Pexels
Source: Jack Sparrow/Pexels

This post refers only to nonabusive relationships.

When you envision conflict with your romantic partner, what comes to mind? Does it seem destructive or dangerous to your bond, something that must be evaded whenever possible? Or do you think about the possibility of addressing issues and coming to an enhanced, deeper awareness and a more connected relationship?

Let’s explore another question. Picture the aims and aspirations you hold for your romantic relationship when you're having an argument with your partner. Does that vision look favorable, like learning how to discuss issues constructively, attaining shared awareness, or cultivating useful compromises? Or does the image involve successfully dodging situations you’re afraid of facing in a disagreement, such as disconnection, heightened friction, or hurt feelings?

In a newly published study, a team of researchers engaged in an experiment that tested whether a writing activity could help people impact the kinds of aspirations they have for disputes. More specifically, the researchers looked at whether a writing activity could enable people to take on more of an “approach motivation” instead of an “avoidance motivation.” When we have an approach motivation, we’re trying to reach the uplifting results we want. On the other hand, when we’re aiming to steer clear of distressing events, we have an avoidance motivation.

This is meaningful because, as the research team pointed out, there’s evidence that our motivation impacts how we feel and what we do. For instance, let’s say you agree to see a movie that your partner really wants to see while you’d rather count pieces of lint. You might go as a way of supporting your partner and watching the excitement in their face, or you might go along to prevent disappointing them. The former reflects an approach motivation, and you may be more likely to feel better and enjoy greater moments with your partner. The latter involves an avoidance motivation, which might leave you prone to feeling worse.

The researchers also considered whether there was a link between an approach motivation and taking an uplifting perspective toward disputes, which is also known as “positive reappraisal.” For example, someone who uses positive reappraisal would be considering one or more upsides to discord, such as learning to communicate and handle tough situations better together. The investigators highlighted prior work on the value of engaging in positive reappraisal as a way of handling powerful emotions and navigating disagreements in a more fruitful way.

Even though their findings didn’t bolster the writing exercise or the pattern of results they anticipated, their results are worth sharing. They found that an "approach motivation" around discord was linked with a positive reappraisal of disagreements, along with partners reacting to each other in a considerate, receptive way. Their findings also revealed that positively reappraising disagreements was linked with kind and caring responses, which in turn were related to a) how powerful quarrels became and b) the well-being of the relationship.

The researchers were correct to point out that they can’t make any causal claims from this research. That being said, they were also right in highlighting the potential value of partners learning to see their disagreements in a new way. Rather than treating squabbles as something harmful to veer away from, by addressing conflict with a focus on what we can gain from it and holding an affirming and encouraging perspective, we just might elevate how we actually navigate differences at the moment.


Cole, T., Teboul, J.. B., & Bishop-Royse, J. (2024). Loving conflict in marital relationships: An approach motivation perspective. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice. Advance online publication.

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