A relationship under strain can be helped by a dose of understanding. In itself, this is no new insight, and it makes sense that understanding your partner and looking for mutual solutions is healthier than looking to win the argument or change them. But new research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that quite aside from any practical value of understanding, simply feeling understood can nullify conflict’s impact – or even allow it to improve relationships.
Amie Gordon and Serena Chen at the University of California conducted several studies with participants recruited through online research pools, most of whom were in their twenties and thirties; all were in an ongoing relationship with at least six months behind it. The first survey-based study showed that the higher the frequency of conflicts in a relationship, the less satisfying it was to participants – unless they felt that their partner understood them well (feeling understood was measured by agreement with statements like “My partner nearly always knows exactly what I mean”).
In the second study, participants who wrote about a specific conflict that had occurred in their current relationship articulated a lower satisfaction within that relationship immediately post-conflict, compared with a control group who wrote about a neutral event – if, and only if, they were asked to consider a conflict where their partner didn’t understand them. This suggests that conflict needn’t be harmful to a relationship if it occurs in the context of feeling understood.
A diary study over a fortnight showed this effect of feeling understood (this time measured by items like: “Today, how much do you think your partner was able to accurately understand what you were thinking and feeling?”) wasn’t merely a product of laboratory context: here too, as participants went about their lives, conflicts accompanied by feeling understood by one’s partner didn’t appear to harm people’s satisfaction with the relationship.
All these results point to the beneficial effect of feeling understood – yes, there are some alternative explanations for the results, but the studies addressed these. For example, it’s true that when participants felt understood, conflicts were more likely to be resolved, and often (although not always) involved the participant believing they themselves were understanding. Thanks to a key experiment involving video, described below, we know also that these conflicts are typically conducted in a more positive tone. But when these factors were accounted for, the beneficial effect of feeling understood remained. These types of conflicts weren’t for smaller stakes, and the diary study, by controlling for previous-day relationship satisfaction, confirmed that this was not a third variable driving both higher satisfaction scores and a willingness to feel understood.
One of the most compelling experiments in the new research involved both partners in a relationship being invited into the lab to discuss, while being videotaped, a topic that was a source of conflict within their relationship. Afterwards, they completed similar surveys to the other studies, and analysis of this replicated the prior finding, as well as producing two other intriguing findings (note, these do warrant retesting and replication before we put too much faith in them). The pre-and post-conflict measures of satisfaction available here showed that participants who felt understood during the conflict left the the session more satisfied than when they began. In other words, when participants felt their partner understood them, the conflict apparently wasn’t just less harmful, it was actually beneficial. And when one partner felt understood, the other felt happier, even after controlling for how understood they felt themselves. It seems there’s a virtuous circle at play: When you feel understood, that increases your partner’s faith in the relationship.
Regardless of whether we get what we want, how soft and fluffy the encounter was, or its stakes, when we feel understood, it seems our relationships can handle, even flourish, from conflict. Some of that is about feeling cared for, some of it is faith that your partner actually considers what you have to be a partnership: the researchers identified both motivations as having a part to play. But beyond these, feeling understood remained as an end in itself, simply worthwhile. However simple such a need might seem to fulfil, beware: Gordon and Chen point to two ways we can fall short and allow conflicts to rankle. One is not understanding – not being willing to see the other’s concerns. The other is to conclude you are being misunderstood or ignored despite your partner doing their best to understand, as if you’re unable to penetrate your historically-founded conclusions about what they are capable of.
Gordon AM, & Chen S (2015). Do You Get Where I’m Coming From?: Perceived Understanding Buffers Against the Negative Impact of Conflict on Relationship Satisfaction. Journal of personality and social psychology PMID: 26523997
Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.
Our free fortnightly email will keep you up-to-date with all the psychology research we digest: Sign up!