A Simple Trick to Smooth Conflict Discussions

New research investigates a strategy to help couples stay calm during conflict.

Posted Feb 04, 2019

Courtesy Pexels via pixabay | CC0 License
Source: Courtesy Pexels via pixabay | CC0 License

Conflicts are inevitable in our romantic relationships. When two people spend a lot of time together and their lives are intertwined, they are bound to run into bumps. Fighting with your partner can be stressful and upsetting, and it could harm your relationship if it leaves you frustrated and resentful. However, conflicts don't have to create problems. In fact, when they are well-managed, they can be constructive and actually help couples to resolve their issues.

Researchers who study conflict have found many strategies that couples can use to avoid downward spirals of insult-slinging, and instead approach discussions with empathy and problem-solving strategies. Thus, most interventions targeted at helping couples manage conflict involve teaching them skills and tactics they can use during the discussion.

However, even if you know the right way to behave in a conflict, it can still be difficult to manage your emotions. One reason that it can be hard to engage in constructive conflict is that you're angry, and that hostility may make you want to hurt your partner, rather than find a cooperative solution to the problem. Conflicts are also stressful, and when we're under stress, we're often not on our best behavior. So one way to help conflicts go more smoothly is to begin the conflict in a calmer mood and to approach it with a motivation to improve the relationship, rather than just to get what you want out of the conflict. In new research, Brittany Jayubiak and Brooke Feeney tested the effectiveness of a simple approach to help couples do just that: Affectionate touch.

There is good reason to believe that affectionate touch could smooth conflicts. First, touch has notable biochemical effects. Affectionate touch causes us to release oxytocin, a hormone that is involved in bonding. Touch also prompts the release of feel-good endorphins. In lab studies where participants are put under stress, affectionate touch reduces cortisol and heart rate. And when it comes to affection in relationships, couples who report engaging in more day-to-day physical affection with one another tend to communicate more effectively and resolve conflicts more easily. Affectionate touch should therefore reduce stress and motivate partners to consider each other's needs

In their new research, Jakubiak and Feeney observed 140 couples discussing a conflict in a laboratory setting, where the researchers experimentally manipulated whether they engaged in physical affection during the interaction. First, they completed a neutral activity—building something with Legos. Some couples were told to hold hands during that activity, and others were asked to hold a light hand weight (so that all participants were holding something—but only for those in the touch condition was this activity affectionate). This also prevented couples in the control group from touching each other affectionately during the task. All couples were then asked to spend 6 minutes discussing a relationship disagreement. They were video-recorded during the experimental session and they completed several questionnaires both before and after the discussion.

So, how did the physical affection affect the conflict discussion? Couples in the touch condition engaged in more constructive conflict behaviors, like cooperating with their partner, accepting responsibility for their own behavior, and showing positive emotions toward their partners. Overall, the touch intervention didn't affect how likely couples were to engage in destructive actions, like criticism and defensiveness because those behaviors were relatively rare among the participants in the study. However, when the researchers examined couples who were especially low in relationship satisfaction, they found that those in the touch condition engaged in fewer negative behaviors than the control group.

In addition to utilizing better conflict strategies, couples in the touch condition also fared better emotionally. Those in the touch condition reported that they felt less stress during the conflict, compared to those in the control group. In two additional studies, participants were asked to imagine their partner affectionately stroking their arm during a conflict discussion, and these participants also felt this would make them feel less stressed during the conflict.

This research suggests a relatively simple way to help you navigate conflicts with your romantic partner. In the study just described, they had couples hold hands both before and during the discussion and found that couples behaved more constructively and felt calmer when they were being physically affectionate. Would an affectionate touch be as effective if it only occurred before the discussion and the couples hadn't been holding hands the entire time? I suspect that it would not work as well, but might still provide some benefit. This technique also requires some deliberate effort early in the conflict. If a fight erupts suddenly, it might be difficult to work in physical affection—and the angrier the conflict, the more difficult it can be to change the mood. The authors of the study also point out that for couples with severe problems, the touch could be interpreted negatively, where partners perceive it as contemptuous or controlling

This is really the first research to examine the effects of touch in the context of conflict, but the results are promising. Expressing any type of physical affection while you discuss a conflict can calm you down and calm your partner, reducing stress and anger. It also makes you feel closer to your partner, which may make it easier to work toward a solution that takes their preferences into account, and stops you from behaving selfishly.