No matter how much you love your partner, there are always going to be things about them that get on your nerves. These can be fairly superficial — not liking the way they fold the laundry, for example, or hating their favourite TV show. Other problems can be more serious — fundamental failures to communicate or disagreements on big decisions like having children. There’s also evidence that we continue to repeat these patterns in new relationships, even when we hope to see a change.
But while all couples argue, they don’t all do it in the same way. Techniques for managing conflict have been explored by François Bogacz and team from the University of Geneva in a new study published in Humanities and Social Sciences Communication. The study’s findings suggest that mediation — negotiation facilitated by a neutral third party such as a therapist or counsellor — may be the best way for couples to resolve serious conflict.
Participants were heterosexual romantic couples who had been in a relationship for more than one year. About a month before the experiment started, participants filled in a number of measures. The “Dyadic Adjustment Scale” was used to measure the quality of relationships, with participants indicating how often they disagree with their partner on issues ranging from religious matters, sex, and life philosophy to housework and leisure time. The scale also covered how often participants thought about separating from their partner and how often there were significant disagreements.
The researchers also measured participants’ emotional competence (i.e. how well a person understands their own and others’ emotions) as well as dispositional mindfulness (i.e. how present someone is able to be in the moment). Finally, participants indicated how they respond before, during and after conflicts with people in their life. These answers revealed how much participants used four different styles of conflict: active-constructive (good at taking others’ perspectives), passive-constructive (delaying and considering a response to conflict), active-destructive (openly expressing anger) and passive-destructive (avoiding conflict altogether).
Immediately before the experiment, participants also rated their mood, and indicated how close they felt to their partner at that moment. Next, they were invited to select a topic for discussion from those most commonly reported as sources of disagreements.
Those in the control condition were then asked to discuss the controversial topic for an hour without any guidance and under the watch of a silent observer, while those in the mediation condition had their discussion facilitated by a neutral third party using a facilitative mediation model, in which partners reach a collective solution through exploring each other’s interests, feelings and outlooks.
After the experiment, participants rated the level of disagreement at the end of their discussion, their level of satisfaction with the discussion and their level of satisfaction with the process of the discussion, and indicated whether or not they had actually achieved a resolution on the topic at hand.
The team found that couples in the mediation condition were more likely to come to a resolution: 36 of the 38 participants in the mediation condition reported reaching an agreement compared to 26 of 38 in the control condition. Participants who had gone through the mediation process also felt closer to their partners after the discussion, while there was no change in closeness for those in the control condition.
How participants reported dealing with conflict also related to other aspects of their personality and their feelings about their relationships. Active-constructive and passive-constructive profiles were positively associated with mindfulness, while those who were passive-destructive were less likely to be mindful and present in the moment. Participants who rated themselves as more emotionally competent also tended to report being more satisfied in their relationship.
Whether couples would have responded in the same way in a naturalistic setting is unclear. The presence of a silent observer may have affected how participants in the control condition dealt with the conflict — screaming at your partner about their very worst qualities is likely to be pretty uncomfortable and inhibited in front of somebody else in a way it may not be at home.
Further research could focus on why mediation works, as well as looking at different types of facilitative relationship. There are also interesting avenues to explore around the content of conflicts. While on the surface an argument may appear to be about who does the dishes more, it’s likely that there are other factors at play, the washing up merely a stand-in for deeper issues about compatibility, personality or politics.
What is clear from the study is that certain personality traits or skills can help resolve conflict. These aren’t impossible things to master — emotional competence is a focus in many types of individual therapeutic intervention. But for those who don’t happen to have those traits or struggle to foster them, mediation seems like a hopeful option.