A happy marriage typically depends on multiple factors. For example, one important element of marital satisfaction is how a couple manages interpersonal conflict. Couples that have the right tools for handling disagreements in healthy ways are better able to successfully navigate the inevitable ups and downs of a serious relationship.
Now, thanks to new research, couples have two more helpful strategies for dealing with conflict. What are these tools, and how might they help preserve your relationship from the potentially toxic effects of fights, disagreements, and squabbles? The answers to these questions may surprise you….
1. The Positive Power of Hugs and Interpersonal Touch
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that hugs and interpersonal touch provide a protective buffer against the psychological stress of interpersonal conflict. Their findings, published in October 2018 in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that receiving a hug on the same day of an argument can reduce its negative emotional effects. The researchers concluded that “hugs may be a simple yet effective method of providing support to both men and women experiencing interpersonal distress.”
In other words, couples that hug more often may be better at inoculating themselves from the accumulative stress of disagreements. The takeaway: Hugs and other simple gestures of physical touch are worth incorporating in daily married life because they can build immunity to the negative effects of interpersonal conflict on mood, mental health, and a relationship.
2. Scheduling Meetings to Discuss Conflicts
The idea of scheduling a formal time to discuss whatever is making you mad in a relationship may sound antithetical to conventional wisdom, which tends to advocate for airing grievances right when they arise. Typically, the reigning marital advice has been to not go to bed angry. According to this view, venting is cathartic and can help ensure that resentments do not get stuffed and bottled up only to unleash themselves in rage at a later point.
While such advice continues to have its advocates among experts—and, in some ways, rightfully so—there is new research to suggest that “a more patient approach to conflict” has its own relationship benefits, according to an article in The Atlantic this year. It reported that couples who save their disagreements for preplanned meetings have found they are able to resolve their conflicts more “cooperatively and creatively.” The same article reported that researchers and clinicians are making similar discoveries about this approach—namely, “that when tackling challenges in relationships, having a little distance and a recurring calendar invite can help.”
One of the experts quoted in The Atlantic article is James Córdova, a psychology professor at Clark University. He has come to believe that a better approach than venting is to take a “time out” to “pause and calm down” before addressing conflicts. Córdova and other researchers take the view that with time anger typically subsides, making it easier to avoid retaliatory reactions that might unnecessarily hurt a spouse and have negative, long-term effects on a relationship.
Of course, the hardest part of this approach can be hitting the pause button and having the discipline to take a time out when you are really angry. Here experts like Córdova recommend taking an impartial view of the matter or finding ways to distract oneself from a compulsion to act out of anger.
When couples save their disagreements for later, they are also better able to prepare for and manage these interactions. For example, some couples schedule these meetings as actual dates. They might plan a fun or restful setting to discuss whatever is going on and how to resolve the problem(s). They might come up with some loose “rules of engagement” to ensure the discussion stays positive, constructive, and cooperative.
The takeaway from this research? If mutual venting is not working for you, consider taking a cooling-off period and scheduling a meeting for a later time to address whatever is causing conflict.
3. When to Seek Marital Counseling
Sometimes the best conflict management tools are not enough. If hugging more often, scheduling meetings to discuss tensions, and/or other self-help techniques are not helping to resolve the root causes of conflict in a marriage, couple’s therapy may be worth exploring.
Usually, it is time get couples therapy when communication has become unproductive. There may be one or more significant issues that continue to keep coming up, where little to no progress has been made.
It is especially important to seek couples therapy if one or both parties have an alcohol or drug addiction. (Learn how individuals are recovering from addiction thanks to treatment at FHE Health.)
In these cases, a therapist can help the couple address problems that have been swept under the rug and identify enabling behaviors that may be difficult for them to see themselves. Similarly, if there are mental health disorders in the relationship, couples may be at a loss as to how to manage depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders in healthy ways.
Couples therapy can help address and resolve conflicts. A therapist can help expose a feeling or emotion that one partner may fear showing to the other. For example, a therapist may stop a couple when they are arguing if the therapist is seeing a non-verbal expression of hurt, shock or sadness.
When the therapist stops the argument at these moments, they can ask the couple more about what emotion is coming up for them and why. They can help couples identify phrases, topics and/or situations where one or both parties is shutting down or disengaging. Rather than allow the shutting down to continue—this prevents open communication from happening—the therapist can support the couple in continuing to talk about the issue instead of avoiding it.
Couples therapy can also help spouses take the blame and anger off each other. The therapist can help the couple tease out what are the relationship issues versus what are the individual issues. (The latter often stem from childhood issues that are better addressed through individual therapy.)
No married couple is immune from conflict. It is a necessary and often healthy part of any romantic relationship. The key is knowing how to manage it effectively, so that it can build greater growth and intimacy.
This article was provided by Dr. Sachi Ananda, PhD, LMHC, MCAP, who directs a specialized treatment program for first responders, “Shatterproof,” at the national behavioral health provider FHE Health.