Skip to content
For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

How Do You and Your Spouse Handle Conflict?

Disagreements are common for married couples, including very happy ones. But conflicts can be approached in a variety of ways, and how couples handle disagreements may well influence their long-term happiness.

That is what a study released this fall by the University of Michigan shows. Commenting on it, Kira Birditt, the study report’s lead author, said the likelihood of divorce declines for couples when both a husband and wife approach conflicts constructively. However, when both spouses handle disagreements in destructive ways, their likelihood of divorcing appears to increase.

But what are “constructive” and “destructive” approaches to marital conflicts? What I found fascinating was the study’s detailed description of these approaches, as well as a third approach that involves one or both spouses withdrawing from conflicts.

Birditt is an assistant research professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. She and a team of researchers published a report this October titled “Marital Conflict Behaviors and Implications for Divorce Over 16 Years” in the Journal of Marriage and Family. This major study followed 373 couples for a period of 16 years; 46 percent had divorced by the 16th year, 2002.

It was certainly not this complex, scientific study’s intent to come up with a set of steps for getting couples onto the same, positive page when problems arise. But after reading the report, I couldn’t help feeling that husbands and wives would be well advised to make themselves as aware as possible of their usual manner of handling disagreements.

And I couldn’t imagine the marriage educator who, learning of the study, wouldn’t want to challenge couples to improve their communication skills and nurture the ability to disagree agreeably.

Couples Can Evaluate Their Fighting Style

Accompanying the University of Michigan’s news release on the study was a study questionnaire that asked couples to evaluate their “marital fight style” during a recent argument. Spouses responded to 21 statements, marking each one “not at all true,” “not very true,” “somewhat true” or “very true.” Here are just a few of the statements:

“My spouse yelled or shouted at me.” “I yelled or shouted at my spouse.” “My spouse tried hard to find out what I was feeling.” “I brought up things that happened long ago.” “My spouse had to have the last word.” “I tried to make my spouse laugh.”

The questionnaire illustrates rather well the patterns husbands and wives often follow during conflicts. It enables them at the same time to see whether they are on the same page in handling disagreements. Does one listen, though one does not? Does one shout, while the other withdraws?

Discussing the three approaches to conflict that are a key focus of their study, the researchers explain that:

1. Destructive approaches include yelling, insulting one’s spouse, bringing up things that happened long ago or demanding to have the last word. Belligerence, contempt and criticism often are said to characterize a destructive approach.

2. Constructive approaches include listening to the other’s point of view, attempting to find out what one’s spouse is feeling, attempting to say kind things or trying to make the other person laugh.

3. Withdrawal approaches involve disengaging from the conflict by becoming quiet and pulling away or leaving the discussion.

Birditt said marriages seem to be harmed when one spouse tends to deal with conflict constructively and the other withdraws. It is possible, she commented, that the spouse whose approach is constructive views the partner’s “habit of withdrawing as a lack of investment in the relationship rather than an attempt to cool down.”

Perhaps surprisingly, husbands in the study reported using more constructive behaviors and fewer destructive behaviors than wives. However, the study reported that wives who early on employed destructive strategies or withdrew when conflicts arose became less likely to do so over time, though husbands who employed such strategies continued doing so over the years.

The study speculates that problems that once led wives to withdraw from conflicts or to approach them in destructive ways may get resolved over time. Or, it says, “relationships and the quality of relationships may be more central to women’s lives than they are to men.” Possibly these wives also gained “more effective conflict skills” and became better at expressing negative feelings.

As a result, Birditt commented, “over the course of marriage, women may be more likely to recognize that withdrawing from conflict or using destructive strategies is neither effective nor beneficial to the overall well-being and stability of their marriages.”

Communication Can Improve Over Time

So, are couples fated for life to handle conflicts poorly if they handle them that way early on? Sadly, it seems many couples do not grow beyond negative habits they develop. Yet, when it comes to long-term marriages, the researchers say their study is consistent with what some others have found, namely that over time these marriages become “more enjoyable and tolerant, and have improved communication.”

It is noteworthy, Birditt suggested to me, that “couples appear to become better able to deal with conflict over time.” She said the point to take away from this study is that while problems are “a normal part of marriage,” it is “how we deal with those problems that is important for” a marriage’s longevity.

It is particularly important, she told me, “that both spouses use constructive strategies together” when conflicts arise.