“Don’t go to bed on an argument” is an adage we’ve all heard and, at some point, probably ignored. Hackneyed as it is, the phrase does have some truth: resolving arguments, rather than letting them simmer away, can make us feel calmer and happier the next day (and also makes it easier to actually get to sleep).
Now a new study from Oregon State University’s Dakota D. Witzel and Robert S. Stawski has looked at the benefits of resolving arguments — and the team finds that not only can resolution almost erase the emotional stress associated with a big argument altogether, but that individual differences can affect how well we do it. The older we get, they find, the less we argue and the better we are at dealing with argument-related stress when it happens.
Data was taken from a daily diary study, in which more than 2,000 participants completed via end-of-day phone interviews over eight days. First, positive and negative affect was measured, with participants indicating how much of the day they had spent feeling particular emotions such as anxiety and cheerfulness.
Everyday stressors were also recorded, with participants reporting whether or not they had experienced a specific type of negative event within the last twenty four hours. This included not only arguments, but avoided arguments (“did anything happen that you could have argued about but you decided to let pass in order to avoid a disagreement?”). The team also recorded whether or not these stressors were resolved, as well as how severe the stressor was on a scale from one to three.
Arguments were pretty common: 1,355 arguments were recorded over the eight days (9.10% of all days), of which 95% had a severity greater than one. There were also 2,177 avoided arguments, 86% of which also had a severity greater than one. A total of 65% of all arguments were resolved compared to 63% of avoided arguments.
As you might expect, arguments and avoided arguments had a big impact on mood and affect: negative affect was higher and positive affect lower on days with arguments than those without. This negative affect was even higher when disagreements had not been dealt with, with unresolved arguments associated with increased negative affect over the following days. Resolved arguments, on the other hand, did not increase low mood, and also had a “residue effect” — in other words, resolving an argument mitigated the emotional impact for days to come.
Age played a huge role here. Older participants had a significantly lower number of both arguments and avoided arguments to begin with, and age was also associated with increased likelihood of arguments being resolved — adults aged above 68 were over 40% more likely than people under the age of 45 to report their conflicts as resolved. Older people also saw less of an increase in negative mood after arguments, even if they did go unresolved.
So what can explain this pattern of results? The first and most obvious answer would be that older people are simply more experienced when it comes to resolving arguments. Handling conflict in relationships is not always easy and may require some practice before getting it right: the older you are, the more practice you’re likely to have. The team also posits that older people are simply more motivated to avoid arguments and that they have more emotional resilience than younger people.
Another notable finding from the study is that bad feelings can linger when arguments go unresolved, with a potential impact on health and wellbeing more generally. Developing ways in which people can start to improve their conflict resolution skills could therefore provide wider benefits than just improving relationships.