Conflicts are inevitable in all types of relationships. However, whether a fight brings down or builds up the relationship depends on how the couple behaves in the aftermath. There are couples that fight frequently and strongly, only to fall in love harder when things are done. And then there are couples that go cold—not necessarily fighting, but have large amounts of lingering resentment and no progress toward resolving the issues. So what is the best way to move past a conflict with your partner? Psychologist Julie Parsons and her colleagues from the University of Texas set out to explore that very question in a series of studies published in the Journal of Family Psychology (Ludden, 2019).
The researches asked 115 cohabitating couples to keep an online diary in which they reported instances of conflict with their partner and what they did to resolve the issue. The researchers then group these responses into four categories of conflict resolution (Parsons, 2019):
- Avoidance: This includes things such as giving your partner time/space, with the goal of calming down before opening up the discussion again. However, it also includes refusing to speak to your partner (stonewalling) and sulking/acting withdrawn.
- Active repair: This category includes behaviors that lead to a rebuilding of affection between partners. This can include things like apologizing and forgiving, reaching an agreement that is accepted by both partners, and affection behaviors such a hugging, kissing, date nights, and sex.
- Gaining a new perspective: Behaviors in which a person seeks to understand their partner’s point of view would fall under this category. This could be seeking advice from friends, family members, spiritual leaders, etc. Gaining a new perspective can often help people to be more willing to seek a compromise.
- Letting go: Under this category, partners may agree to disagree, accepting that their partner has a difference perspective from their own. Some conflicts simply are not worth it, and partners may decide to let things go for the sake of the relationship.
Parsons and colleagues found that the post-conflict behaviors people reported in their diaries did not always match those they observed in the laboratory (Parsons, 2019). However, as the researchers point out, what couples do in the minutes after a conflict may be very different from the conflict resolution behaviors they attempt hours or day later. It can be hard to think clearly in the heat of the moment.
Thinking of ways to bring relationships back to previous, or greater, levels of happiness, one approach stands out above the rest as most effective. This being active repair. This study, along with extensive research, shows that actively repairing the relationship through expressions of affection can not only bring the relationship back to baseline, but even push the relationship to higher levels of intimacy (Parsons, 2019).
On the other end, avoidance strategies typically lead to negative outcomes. Although partners cannot always find solutions to conflicts, they do need to find ways to move beyond them if they would like their relationship to be happy and healthy (Parsons, 2019). This might mean compromising, agreeing to disagree, or concluding that the issue is not 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 mixed in its effectiveness, depending on the situation (Parsons, 2019). If you’ve come to the conclusion that your partner is simply never going to put the toilet seat down, it’s probably better to just let this argument go. This becomes easier when you recognize that you also have habits that probably bother your partner.
Ludden, D. (2019, September 25). How to Move Past Conflicts with Your Partner.
Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-apes/201909/how-move-past-conflicts-your-partner.
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.