Make Up or Break Up? 5 Ways Couples Reconcile After a Fight

Apologize, argue, or forgive? What is the most effective reconciliation tactic?

Posted Jul 17, 2017

Hernán Piñera/Flickr
Source: Hernán Piñera/Flickr

Psychologists from the US have found that there are five tactics for resolving romantic conflict that are judged to be most effective by men and women.

Conflict is a common feature of romantic relationships. Even in the idealized world of Hollywood movies, the standard plot-line of a romantic comedy follows a couple taking their first tentative steps toward a relationship (Act 1), navigating their first major conflict (Act 2), and resolving that conflict to “live happily ever after” (Act 3).

As cinema-goers we are interested not only in how couples form, but also how they deal with hardship and manage to stay together, perhaps because we recognize that these are problems we face in our own lives.

Joel Wade of Bucknell University in Pennsylvania asked men and women to list behaviors that they or their same-sex friends might use to resolve relationship conflict. The 220 suggestions were boiled down to a list of 21 tactics, such as “forgive partner”, “apologize”, and “argue”.

In the second phase of the study, Wade asked a different group of men and women to rate how effective they thought each tactic would be at resolving a conflict in their own relationships. Effectiveness was rated on a 7-point scale.

“Communicate” was rated the most effective tactic, with a score of 6.1. The next most effective tactics were “apologize”, “forgive your partner”, “spend time together”, and “compromise”, all with scores between 5.6 and 5.9.

The least effective tactics were “drink alcohol”, “ignore or avoid partner”, and “pretend the fight did not happen”.

The researchers also identified interesting differences between the sexes. Women thought conflict would be more effectively resolved if their partner decided to spend more time with them, or if he cried or apologized. Men thought conflict would be more effectively resolved if their partner gave sexual favors or performed “nice gestures”.

Wade argues that these sex differences can be explained by the differences in men and women’s general mating psychology. Men tend to value sexual availability in a partner, while women more often value emotional closeness. Both men and women seem to realize that appealing to these desires can be an effective way to keep a relationship strong.

Earlier research has shown that forgiving a partner can improve our cardiovascular health, and that apologizing reduces stress and increases feelings of control over one’s life. These are more reasons, if reasons were needed, to resolve your relationship conflicts and — like all those Hollywood movie couples — “live happily ever after.”

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Wade, T. J., Mogilski, J., & Schoenberg, R. (in press). Sex differences in reconciliation behavior after romantic conflict. Evolutionary Psychological Science.