How to Move Past Conflicts with Your Partner
New research finds effective ways to resolve disagreements.
Posted Sep 25, 2019
Conflict is unavoidable when living with another person, but whether a fight tears down or builds up the relationship depends on how the couple behaves in its aftermath. There are couples that fight frequently and vigorously, only to fall in love all over again after the storm has passed. And then there are couples that maintain a “cold war” state—no open hostilities, but lingering resentment and no progress toward resolving the issues.
So what is the best way to move past a conflict with your partner? This is the question that University of Texas at Dallas psychologist Julie Parsons and her colleagues explored in a series of studies they recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
First, the researchers explored the range of behaviors people engage in after a fight with their partner. They asked 115 cohabiting couples to keep an online diary in which they reported instances of conflict with their spouse and what they did to resolve the issue. The research team analyzed these responses and found they could be grouped into 18 basic types of post-conflict behavior. They then grouped these into four categories of conflict resolution, as follows:
Avoidance. This category includes behaviors such as giving your partner time or space, often with the goal of calming down before reopening the conflict discussion. However, it also includes refusing to speak to your partner (“stonewalling”) and sulking or acting withdrawn.
Active repair. Any behavior that leads to a restoration of affection between partners goes in this category. Active repairs include apologizing and forgiving, reaching an agreement satisfactory to both parties, and affectionate behaviors such as hugging, kissing, going on a date night, and having sex.
Gaining a new perspective. This category includes any behavior in which the person sought to understand their partner’s point of view. It could be seeking advice from friends, family members, or spiritual leaders as well as praying and contemplating. Gaining a new perspective often makes people willing to seek a compromise with their partner.
Letting go. Some conflicts simply aren’t worth it, and persons decide to let them go for the sake of the relationship. Partners may also agree to disagree, accepting that their partner has a different perspective from their own.
From these data, Parsons and colleagues created a checklist of 18 post-conflict behaviors that they could use to assess conflict resolution in couples. For this study, the team recruited 226 cohabiting couples who kept online diaries of their conflicts during a two-week period, using the checklist to indicate how they resolved them. The respondents also reported their daily mood, depressive symptoms, relationship satisfaction, and intimacy.
Afterward, each couple visited the lab, where they engaged in discussions of two conflict issues, one chosen by each partner. This enabled the researchers to observe these couples’ conflict resolution strategies firsthand as opposed to relying on self-reports.
Parsons and colleagues found that the post-conflict behaviors people reported in their diaries didn’t always match those they observed in the laboratory. However, as the researchers point out, what couples do in the minutes after a conflict may be quite different from the conflict resolution behaviors they attempt hours or days later. After all, it’s hard to think clearly in the heat of the moment, but mostly we understand the need to patch up the relationship and move on.
If we think of post-conflict resolution behaviors as attempts to bring the relationship back to its previous level of happiness, then one approach stands out above all others as most effective. This is, not surprisingly, active repair. The findings in this study corroborate extensive research showing that actively repairing the relationship through expressions of affection can not only bring the partners back to their pre-conflict feelings for one another, it can also push the relationship to a higher level of intimacy.
Likewise, avoidance strategies generally lead to negative outcomes. Couples won’t always find solutions to their conflicts, but they do need to find ways to move beyond them if they want their relationship to be a happy one. This can include reaching compromises, agreeing to disagree on certain issues, or concluding that the issue isn’t worth breaking the relationship over.
The other two approaches yielded mixed results. Gaining a new perspective may make you more willing to compromise, but if your partner doesn’t reciprocate, it can lead to lingering ill feelings. This approach works best when both partners engage in it, such as by taking turns actively listening to each other or seeking help from a counselor.
Letting go can also be effective or not, depending on the situation. If you’ve come to the conclusion that your partner is simply never going to learn to stop leaving their dirty socks on the floor, it’s probably better to just let this argument go. This becomes easier when you recognize that you also have habits that peeve your partner.
At the same time, certain conflicts simply need to be resolved, and letting them go won’t make them go away. You have to set reasonable limits on what you’ll accept, and you have to enforce those limits when push comes to shove. Here, the best strategy is to try to find a compromise with your partner in which you each give up something in exchange for something else that you want even more.
Conflicts are inevitable; what’s important is how we resolve the issues. Sometimes we need to let go of the small stuff, and often we have to compromise with our partner. And we should never forget the bright side of conflicts: They clear the air of accumulated frustrations. They also give us the opportunity to “kiss and make up” again, maybe even getting closer to our partner than we were before.
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Parsons, J. A., Prager, K. J., et al. (2019, Aug. 8). How to kiss and make-up (or not!): Postconflict behavior and affective recovery from conflict. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.