After the Fight: Cold War or Intimate Harmony

Every family has conflict. It’s inevitable. Couples are going to disagree and argue. Siblings are going to clash, compete, and struggle with one another. Parental wisdom and desires are going to collide with their children’s push for independence. These skirmishes can create a cold war within the family; or, they can promote an intimate harmony within the family. What makes the difference?

Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas asked the same question. To find an answer, they recruited 226 cohabiting couples to keep an online diary of their conflicts for two weeks. They also gave them a checklist of behaviors to indicate how they resolved their conflicts. The checklist had 18 possible post-conflict behaviors that fell into one of four categories. (The 18 post-conflict behaviors and the four related categories were determined from a previous study by the same group of researchers.) At the end of the two-week period, each couple came to the lab where they engaged in “discussions” centered on two of their conflict issues, one chosen by each partner. The researchers observed each couple’s arguments first-hand in this setting. They discovered that a cold war or a more intimate family resulted not from the argument itself, but from which of the four categories of behaviors their post-conflict actions fell into.

  1. Avoidance, one of the four categories of post-conflict behavior, was more likely to result in a cold war. Such practices might include “pretending” like everything is fine even though no resolution was reached, not talking about it, or just ignoring the issue. As you can imagine, avoiding the issue does not make it go away. It only makes it worse. At best, a cold war can ensue. At worst, Shut Up and Put Up can Ruin Your Marriage.
  2. Letting go, another strategy couples use following a conflict, had in mixed results.  Letting go can work wonders for small issues like whether the toilet paper goes over the top or the bottom (top, of course) or whether the toothpaste is squeezed from the middle or bottom (bottom, obviously). But letting go can prove much less effective in larger issues…and, in such cases can lead to a cold war. Gottman suggests that 69% of marital issues are “perpetual problems.” They are unsolvable. They may be the result of differences in personality (extraverted vs. introverted, for example) or lifestyle (desire to travel, level of  house clutter tolerated, etc.). When it comes to “perpetual problems,” we need to accept the ways in which our spouse is different than us. At the same time, these issues don’t go away. Couples will continually return to them in their disagreements and arguments. To keep them from destroying the relationship, couples must learn to approach the conflict of “perpetual problems” with gentleness, personal responsibility, and humor. They must learn to build an overall environment of gratitude and appreciation into their home. Letting go, in and of itself, is incomplete and not effective in the bigger, more perpetual problems.
  3. Gaining new perspective, another post-conflict behavior, sounds like a great option. We are often encouraged to take our spouse’s perspective. Taking perspective can help us gain understanding and build a willingness to compromise…maybe. But if the compromise is one-sided or given begrudgingly, it can lay a root of bitterness, lingering ill-feelings, or even anger at the lack of perceived reciprocation. The result? A potential cold war. So, quit taking your spouse’s perspective and become more like a fly on the wall instead.
  4. Active repair, the final category of post-conflict behaviors, stood out above all the others in effectively promoting an intimate harmony and happiness. Active repair builds harmony through intentional listening, expressions of affection, and learning to give it up to lift up your marriage.

Conflict, disagreement, arguments…they can lead to a cold war or they can promote a more intimate harmony. It all depends on what you do after the conflict. What will you do? Avoid? Let it go? Gain new perspective? Work toward actively repairing the relationship? The choice is clear. Actively repair will promote more intimate harmony…and that is well worth the effort.

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