Conflict resolution

Conflict is a part of life, it doesn’t need to be unpleasant or aggressive, but it is inevitable. The sheer simple fact of two individuals in the same physical space with different perspectives and sometimes competing needs means that if you leave those two there long enough then conflict will arise. The nature of the people involved will determine how the conflict is dealt with, but the occurrence of conflict is certain. Put two people into the one life-space for a few decades, as in a long-term committed relationship, and conflict is as sure to occur as a dying moth is attracted to the foam on your newly purchased latte. So conflict resolution is part of any relationship but what a new study has shown is that the way conflict is addressed changes as couples age.

The new study followed couples over a period of 13 years. At varying points in that 13 years the couples were given questionnaires and were filmed while discussing contentious issues in their relationship. A key focus for the researchers was to see whether couples had a conflict dynamic known as “demand-withdraw”. They wanted to see if this dynamic changed in use over time because it is known to be a damaging process for relationships as it is not only polarising but also self-perpetuating.

In the demand-withdraw pattern, one person in a relationship blames or pressures their partner for a change, while the partner tries to avoid discussion of the problem or passively withdraws from the interaction. This self-perpetuates as the withdrawal leads to increased pressure which is responded to by further withdrawal and so the pattern continues.

The researchers found that while most aspects of demand-withdraw communication remained steady over time, both women and men increased their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict. So when faced with a disagreement, both spouses were more likely to do things such as change the subject or divert attention from the conflict.

This may not seem a good thing but it does actually make psychological sense.

Avoidance is damaging to relationships as it gets in the way of conflict resolution. This is particularly true for younger couples, who may be grappling with newer issues, and who are each trying to establish their own world view. For older couples though, there has been decades of opportunities to voice their disagreements, and avoidance may be a way to move the conversation away from “toxic” areas toward more neutral or pleasant topics. This fits with what we know about people as they age in that older people place less importance on arguments and value more positive experiences, possibly because they want to make the most out of life.

If we could shift that priority set to our earlier years how different could life be? They say you can’t put an old head on young shoulders but that’s only true if you believe it to be, and if you care about matching hair colour with skin type. Sure, youth should be a time of exploration and discovery, but so should your later years. It’s the angst of unnecessary conflict that can be jettisoned at any age.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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