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Couple Relationships

Conflict is natural and inevitable in marriages and other close relationships. Ironically, one's experience of interpersonal conflict is often highest with one's spouse, compared to other long-term relationships (Argyle and Furnham 1983). Marital relationships are particularly prone to conflict because spouses develop a great deal of shared intimacy and interdependence. These qualities make the partners more vulnerable to one another. At the same time, cohesion strengthens the relationship such that partners can better withstand criticism from one another and the relationship can survive partner disagreements.

The term conflict often conjures up perceptions of hostile disputes and dysfunctional relationships. However, research has shown that the mere existence of conflict is not necessarily bad. In fact, some conflict produces positive outcomes. Conflict allows relational partners to express important feelings and to devise creative solutions to problems. Further, successfully managed conflict can strengthen relational bonds and increase relational cohesion and solidarity. Marital conflict also contributes to the social development of children.

The most frequent topics of conflict in marital relationships include communication, finances, children, sex, housework, jealousy, and in-laws (Gottman 1979; Mead et al. 1990). Sometimes what appears on the surface to be a simple issue can reflect deeper relational struggles about power and intimacy (e.g., disagreements about how much time to spend together versus with other people). Persistent conflict about such relational issues has the greatest impact on relationship satisfaction (Kurdek 1994).

The intensity and seriousness of conflicts varies widely both within and between couples. Some oppositions are merely mild disagreements or complaints. They receive minimal attention and produce short-lived effects. Other conflicts represent ongoing struggles about personally significant issues that produce intense personal anxiety and relational tension. Conflicts that are recurrent and stable over time are most problematic for relational stability (Lloyd 1990), although relational harm can be mitigated when partners communicate relationally confirming messages during continued conflicts ( Johnson and Roloff 2000).

Determining how much conflict is typical or normal between spouses is difficult, although there are estimates (McGonagle, Kessler, and Schilling 1992). Indeed, averages of the number of disagreements across marriages are probably not meaningful because different types of marriages exhibit different amounts of conflict (Fitzpatrick 1988; Gottman 1994; Raush et al. 1974). Some couples construct a relational culture where they argue frequently; others experience disagreements infrequently and develop a norm to disagree only on issues of importance. Developmental patterns, however, can be consistent. For example, older spouses who have been married for a longer period of time engage in fewer overt disagreements compared to younger newlyweds (Zietlow and Sillars 1988). Yet, the mere frequency of disagreements reveals very little about the overall health or stability of marital relationships. More important is the seriousness of disputes, and the manner in which they are managed (e.g., Gottman 1994).

Perhaps the most important feature of conflict management concerns its constructiveness or destructiveness (Deutsch 1973). Constructive conflict tends to be cooperative, pro-social, and relationship-preserving in nature. Constructive behaviors are relatively positive in emotional tone. Destructive conflict is competitive, antisocial, and relationship-damaging in nature. Destructive behaviors exhibit negativity, disagreeableness, and sometimes hostility.

Research has demonstrated that constructive and destructive conflict behaviors are connected to the quality and stability of marriage. This connection is probably reciprocal—conflict behaviors both influence and are affected by one's relationship satisfaction over time (Fletcher and Thomas 2000). Methods for confronting or avoiding conflict influence the extent to which spouses are satisfied in their marriage, and ultimately affect the likelihood of separation and divorce. At the same time, spouses' degree of happiness or unhappiness in a marriage affects how they communicate during their conflicts.

A rather sizeable body of research has shown that conflict behaviors effectively discriminate between distressed and nondistressed married couples. Distressed couples are those in which partners report they are unhappy with their marriage. In addition, they typically have sought marital counseling. The findings from this research yield three robust conclusions (Gottman 1994; Schaap, Buunk, and Kerkstra 1988). First, distressed couples engage in more negativity during conflict interactions. Negativity includes demands, threats, attacks, criticisms, put-downs, belligerence, contempt, rejection, defensiveness, and hostility. Second, distressed marriages demonstrate less positivity, such as showing approval, using humor, making statements that validate partner and the relationship, and seeking to understand partner's point of view. In fact, John Gottman (1994) reports that stable marriages consistently exhibit about five times more positive behaviors than negative behaviors in conflict. Third, negative behaviors in distressed marriages are more likely to be reciprocated and become absorbing. Distressed spouses are more likely to get caught up in lengthy sequences of negative behaviors that are difficult to break out of. Such sequences occur, for example, when one partner makes a complaint, and the other partner responds with a counter-complaint; or one spouse attacks and the other defends; or one partner attacks and the other withdraws.

Compared to dissatisfied couples, satisfied couples are more likely to exhibit patterns of accommodation (Rusbult et al. 1991). Accommodation occurs when one partner inhibits the tendency to respond in-kind to a partner's destructive conflict behavior. In other words, in the face of a negative sequence of events, one partner takes responsibility to nudge the discussion back onto a constructive course. Thus, although even happy couples can enact negative conflict behaviors, they are less inclined to get locked into sequences of reciprocated negative actions.

Based upon more than two decades of extensive observation of marital interaction, Gottman (1994) has proposed a theory of behavioral patterns that predict divorce. Behaviors during conflict that erode satisfaction in a marriage also jeopardize the long-term stability of marriage. Gottman refers to the most significant of these behaviors as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Couples at greater risk for divorce repeatedly engage in complaining and criticizing, which leads to contempt, which produces defensiveness, which results in stonewalling.

Complaints allow marital partners to express dissatisfaction or disapproval. When a complaint takes the form of a personal attack, in other words, when it communicates disapproval of the character or personality of the recipient, it is regarded as criticism. Because criticism conveys devaluation of the relationship, it is typically hurtful to the recipient (Leary et al. 1998). Criticism can be accompanied by the expression of contempt, and it can elicit contempt from the criticized person. Messages showing contempt communicate blatant disrespect, as well as disdain and bitter scorn.

Defensiveness is common in conflict as one attempts to protect his or her own interests. Naturally it is heightened when one is the recipient of messages showing contempt. Defensive responses include denying responsibility for reproachful actions, making excuses for untoward behavior, and responding to complaints with countercomplaints. A whining tone often accompanies defensive remarks.

Stonewalling manifests itself in emotional withdrawal from conflict interaction. Stonewallers exhibit silence, repress verbal and nonverbal feedback, and generally attempt to show a complete lack of expressiveness. Although individuals who stonewall sometimes claim they are simply displaying calmness, rationality, and objectivity, their actions actually communicate smugness, disapproval, and icy distancing, according to Gottman (1994).

Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling can be exhibited in stable relationships as well as unstable ones. These behaviors are particularly problematic for relationships when they are (1) habitual, (2) reciprocated, and (3) insufficiently counterbalanced with positive behaviors.

Several factors have been proposed to account for the connection between relationship quality (e.g., marital satisfaction) and the constructive or destructive nature of conflict interactions. Among the more prominent accounts are (1) the causal and responsibility attributions that partners make about each other's behavior; (2) the perceived competence of conflict communication and; (3) the perceived face threat that attends conflict interactions. Attributions consist of the explanations that partners hold regarding the causality and responsibility of each other's behavior. Distressed couples tend to make negative and relationship-damaging attributions more than non-distressed couples; in other words, individuals who are unhappy with their relationship tend to attribute blame and causality to their partner for relationship problems (Bradbury and Fincham 1990). Specifically, individuals in distressed relationships tend to attribute that their partner's contribution to relationship problems is global rather than issue-specific, stable rather than fleeting, and due to their partner's personality rather than contextual circumstances. Moreover, those experiencing less relational satisfaction perceive that their partner's problematic behavior is intentional, blameworthy, and selfishly motivated. Such negative attributions are also associated with destructive conflict behaviors (Fincham and Bradbury 1992; Sillars 1980). As attributions become more negative, they contribute to a climate whereby the individual feels emotionally overwhelmed by the partner's negativity, which leads to a further decline in relational satisfaction. Thus, distressed couples get caught up in a regressive spiral such that declines in satisfaction lead to increasingly negative attributions, which lead to and derive from destructive conflict behaviors, which in turn, further diminish satisfaction over time. The greater the frequency and duration of these perceptions over time, the more likely that marital partners experience distance and isolation in the marriage and move toward divorce (Gottman 1994).

Similar to attributions, perceptions of communication competence and communication satisfaction filter the association between relational quality and conflict behavior (Canary and Cupach 1988; Canary, Cupach, and Serpe 2001; Spitzberg, Canary, and Cupach 1994). Specifically, when one enacts constructive conflict tactics, one's partner is generally more satisfied with conflict interaction and the partner sees one as communicatively competent. Destructive behaviors, on the other hand, are associated with one's partner's communication dissatisfaction and with partner perceptions that one is communicatively incompetent. Feelings of communication satisfaction and perceptions of a partner's communication competence are associated, in turn, with relational qualities such as satisfaction, trust, control mutuality, liking, and loving. Thus, more communication satisfaction and greater perceptions of partner competence contribute to improved relational qualities including higher levels of relational satisfaction and trust.

Another reason that negative conflict behaviors erode relationships is because they are face threatening. Face refers to the positive social value that one claims in social interaction, and that one assumes will be validated by others involved in the interaction (Goffman 1967). Generally people desire to be accepted, valued, and respected by important others (Brown and Levinson 1987). Partners cooperatively support one another's face by expressing affiliation and respect, and by avoiding affronts to each other's face.

By its very nature, conflict interaction threatens the face of each partner. Insofar as conflict conveys disapproval about something connected to the relational partner, the partner's face is threatened. In close interpersonal relationships such as marriage, one's face becomes inextricably tied to the relationship. When one criticizes a relational partner, the partner infers that his or her status in the relationship has been called into question (Cupach and Metts 1994).

The degree of face threat perceived in conflict depends upon the manner in which partners communicate. Messages that are seen as unfair, impolite, or disrespectful aggravate face threat. A complaint accompanied by a hostile or sarcastic tone, for example, not only communicates disapproval of an idea or a behavior, but also conveys disapproval of the partner. Individuals who perceive such disapproval experience hurt and feel devalued as a relational partner; in other words, they believe that the partner "does not regard his or her relationship with the person to be as important, close, or valuable as the person desires" (Leary et al. 1998, p. 1225). As a consequence, she or he may distance himself or herself to insulate against further hurt and face threat (Vangelisti and Young 2000).

Constructive behaviors are relationshippreserving, in part, because they tend to mitigate perceived face threat. Softening complaints by communicating diplomatically and by showing expressions of positive regard saves face for partners and reassures them that their standing in the relationship remains solid and intact, despite the expression of disagreement or discontent. Mark Leary and Carrie Springer provide the following example: "You know I adore you honey, but I can't stand it when (fill in the blank)" (2001, p. 160).

Consequences of poor conflict management extend beyond the survival of the marriage. Increasingly, research suggests that negative conflict interactions can hurt one's health. For example, one research team found that negative conflict behaviors adversely affect blood pressure and immune systems (Kiecolt-Glaser et al. 1993). Although the long-term effects of conflict interaction on health are unknown, this research suggests that negative conflict behavior in one discussion can harm physical well-being for at least a day. If negative conflict occurs routinely, it appears that one's health would be adversely affected over time.

On-going hostilities between spouses can also adversely affect their children. Although separation and divorce are often blamed for child adjustment problems, the inability to constructively manage conflict between them is much more important (Amato and Keith 1991; Emery 1982, 1992). Hostile marital conflict adversely affects children by lowering their self-esteem, diminishing achievement in school, and increasing the likelihood of depression and antisocial behavior (Gottman 1994; Jenkins and Smith 1991; Montemayor 1983). Moreover, young children learn their own methods of managing conflict by observing their parents (Minuchin 1992). To the extent that parents are incompetent at managing differences, their children are at risk for being similarly incompetent at managing conflict as grown-ups in their own families. The damaging effects of divorce on a child can be somewhat nullified if parents constructively manage their relational problems and breakups, and if parents provide positive support and do not use the child as a resource for winning the conflict.

Despite the paucity of available data regarding differences in marital conflict across cultures, there is sufficient research to speculate that different cultures exhibit different preferences for the manner in which conflict is managed. Relying on the cultural dimensions of individualism-collectivism and high versus low context, Stella Ting-Toomey (1988) proposes that individuals from different cultures privilege different forms of conflict communication. Ting-Toomey argues that members of individualistic, low-context cultures pursue maintenance of own face and rely on autonomy-preserving strategies, whereas members of collectivistic cultures tend to preserve mutual and other face and rely on approval-seeking strategies. Studies across several cultures provide preliminary support for Ting-Toomey's (1988) theory. Members of individualistic cultures tend to be more self-oriented, competitive, and direct, whereas members of collectivistic cultures tend to be more indirect, obliging, and avoiding in conflict situations (Ohbuchi and Takahashi 1994; Ting-Toomey et al. 1991; Trubisky, Ting-Toomey, and Lin 1991). Although people from individualistic cultures appear to be more direct than people from collectivistic cultures, all people appear to prefer the use of constructive conflict messages before they resort to competitive, destructive messages (Kim and Leung 2000). More empirical work needs to be conducted to explore cross-cultural differences in marital conflict specifically.


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodConflict - Couple Relationships, Family Relationships, Parent-child Relationships