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For Your Marriage

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

How Quickly Do You Bounce Back From an Argument?

Conflict to some degree is a fact of life for most couples. No two people feel and think exactly alike about everything, after all. That is why so much advice to couples prescribes effective ways to handle conflict when it erupts and to resolve ongoing conflicts.

But in addition to learning to handle and resolve conflicts, couples ought to take stock of how quickly they recover from arguments and move on to other things, according to Jessica Salvatore, a researcher in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development. She recommended that individuals hoping for a stable, fulfilling relationship seek someone who recovers from conflict well.

Benefits of Bouncing Back

Salvatore discovered that it bodes well for a couple’s sense of satisfaction in their relationship if, instead of languishing in anger or holding a grudge, one or both partners tends to recoup rather speedily after a dispute. Among its benefits, a rapid recovery can keep the dispute from spilling over into other areas of the couple’s life, such as deciding how to parent their children or providing support for each other.

A study published in the March edition of the journal Psychological Science by Salvatore and her University of Minnesota colleagues digs into the reasons a rapid recovery from disputes makes a difference for couples. “Disengaging from conflict” in ways that are appropriate to the situation appears to fulfill an important function in relationships of love, “protecting partners from the detrimental consequences of conflict spillover,” the study observes.

But what if one partner in a relationship recovers more quickly than the other from conflicts? The response to that question in Salvatore’s study is of more than passing interest. She found that the one who recoups quickly can benefit the one who does not.

“If I’m good at recovering from conflict, my husband will benefit and be more satisfied with our relationship,” Salvatore explained. The study report suggests that the partner who recovers quickly from a dispute serves as a sort of “buffer” for the other, helping to “contain the potential spillover” of the conflict and to “smooth the transition to other types of interactions” in ways that help protect the couple from “negative relationship outcomes.”

The reasons some people recover rapidly from disputes are not fully understood, the study makes clear. This may involve “a capacity to ‘bounce back’ from negative interpersonal feelings and events, and to act in ways that quickly restore emotional balance and harmony in relationships.” Or some combination of personality attributes may come into play, the study says.

What it plainly indicates is that this capacity may date all the way back to infancy and care received during that time, as well as to the history of earlier relationships in a person’s life. Undoubtedly, future studies will probe all of this further. Of special interest in future research will be this study’s indication “that individuals may be able to compensate for the vulnerabilities” of the one they love in the matter of recovering from conflicts.

In any event, what this study shows overall “is that recovering from conflict well predicts higher satisfaction and more favorable relationship perceptions. You perceive the relationship more positively,” Salvatore said.

She considers the study relevant for everyone in relationships. “I especially think this will be important for marital therapists and other people who are working with couples who are experiencing some relationship distress,” Salvatore said.

Personally, I suspect that many women and men knew to some degree while they were dating that the speed or lack thereof in their recovery from conflicts was a noteworthy factor of their relationship. It would not be unusual for a couple to assess their capacity to survive an argument well as a positive sign of strength.

But Salvatore’s research brings this capacity into the foreground as something for couples to focus upon and take seriously. Educators in the field of marriage preparation are among those likely to find this new study insightful.

Findings Will Help Marriage Educators

In a 2010 book titled “Fight Less, Love More,” couples mediator Laurie Puhn stated that “every couple gets into dumb arguments.” She proposed five tactics to help couples “steer clear of useless battles and build a stronger partnership.”

Puhn’s advice was to stop “insisting on always being right” and instead to “wisely choose to have a more loving relationship.”

John Gottman’s influential 1999 book “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work” listed five steps for resolving conflicts in a loving relationship. For example, the famed psychologist urged spouses to compromise, to become tolerant of each other’s faults and “to make and receive repair attempts.”

It boils down to something akin to “good manners” – to treating a spouse with the same respect offered to guests, Gottman said. A problem in his view was that people “get out of the habit of using” such skills in their “most intimate relationship.”

Now comes the work of Salvatore. “Several decades of marriage research show that what happens during a conflict matters,” she said. “What we show is that what happens in the time following a conflict also matters.”