Friday, April 30, 1999Couples learn to quarrel their way to happiness
Couples who begin serious discussions by quarrelling have a better prognosis for happiness than couples who start discussions calmly only to erupt in bitter outbursts, according to a study of newlyweds.
Two psychologists from the University of California at Los Angeles dissected the conversations of 60 couples who recently married, and analyzed every exchange to assess their pattern of interaction.
The couples were told to discuss an issue which could lead to conflict, such as in-laws, sex, children, money, friends, and how to spend shared leisure time. To their surprise, the researchers found that couples who started the discussions by arguing were happier six and 12 months later, than couples whose conversational style began positively, and then disintegrated into argument.
"The common theories in marital psychological literature is that fights are bad," said Matthew Johnson, who will complete his doctoral dissertation this summer. "But it might not be so bad to fight as long as you consistently fight."
The study, Marital Satisfaction and Topographical Assessment of Marital Interaction, appeared in a 1999 issue of Personal Relationships, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal published by the International Society for the Study of Personal Relationships.
Mr. Johnson, who worked on the project with Thomas Bradbury, a psychology professor at UCLA, said the process of analyzing the 60 conversations was complex and took more than one year to complete.
First, he recorded the couples' 15-minute discussions. The researchers then assigned points to each "positive, negative, and avoiding" remark. Criticism, attempts to change the topic, and refusals to discuss an issue all received negative scores, while supportive comments and neutral exchanges of information received positive scores.
Husband: "But it is just a matter of time before we run out of money." (Score: 1)
Wife: "Yeah." (Score: 1)
Husband: "So you know it is always . . ." (Score: 1)
Wife: "Well, the Visa bill is due in two weeks and it is higher than ever." (Score: 1)
Husband: (sigh) "This is frustrating. What did you have to use the Visa card for this time?" (Score: -3)
Wife: "You don't have to ask. Remember, I told you about it." (Score: 1)
Husband: "See, this is the problem that you -- we -- have to deal with. There is way too much spending." (Score: -2)
Wife: "I got the best price." (Score: 1)
Husband: "You are missing the point! We can't spend money we don't have." (Score: -3)
Wife: "Well, let's pay the bills together this month." (Score: 1)
Husband: "I do not know what good that will do, there still is not enough money to pay them all." (Score: -2)
These interaction patterns were plotted on a graph, and analyzed and compared.
The researchers then asked the couples to assess the quality of their marriage six and 12 months later. Couples who agreed throughout their 15-minute discussion were the happiest, but so were those who began discussions with disagreement.
"Arguing is not necessarily bad," said Prof. Bradbury. "Couples who diverge from the very beginning of a conversation, that may just be the way they go about their business."
The researchers found that couples whose positive conversations suddenly "turned south" had a common source of conflict; they began arguing when one spouse -- usually the wife -- expressed her feelings and the other spouse -- usually the husband -- did not reciprocate.
"The breaking point seemed to be when the wives became frustrated and more emotional . . . and the husbands were trying to discuss the issue and solve the problem, ignoring the impact of the problem on the spouse," Mr. Johnson said.
This conclusion re-enforces the stereotype found in many self-help books of male reserve and female emotion. However, the research is based on quantitative analysis, and not personal anecdote, Mr. Johnson points out.
"There's also an aspect of time in the interaction and how couples react to a pivotal point in the conflict," said Mr. Johnson. "You might think about getting negative feelings out closer to the beginning of the conversation before you become frustrated and upset that your partner doesn't get it."
The researchers will use the results of their study to develop tools to help couples get along better, and to encourage couples to analyze their own discussions.
"We want couples to become diagnosticians within their own relationship," said Prof. Bradbury. "We are trying to identify problematic interactions so we can help subsequent generations avoid these pitfalls."
He advises couples to think about paraphrasing or reflecting their spouse's feelings, as a way to legitimize their concerns.
Prof. Bradbury, who has reviewed 115 studies on marriage, says the nature of daily exchanges between couples is a key factor in determining their fate and ability to get along. A negative, anxious or critical personality style is "enormously detrimental" to a relationship, more so than any other character trait.