Good news if you’re in a long-term relationship: Those annoying arguments about whose turn it is to clean the bathroom or who spent too much on new shoes will likely diminish over time, but not because you’ve discovered the secret to marital bliss. According to a study published in the July 2013 issue of Journal of Marriage and Family, relationships often evolve to avoiding or ignoring conflict—and that can be a good or bad. We’ll explain.
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Sarah Holley, Ph.D., San Francisco State University assistant professor of psychology, interviewed 127 long-term married couples several times over 13 years. During that time, she and her colleagues noted how they communicated about everyday conflicts from housework to finances.What the researchers found was something many couples can relate to: the classic demand-withdraw pattern increased over time. This pattern typically happens when one person blames or pressures a partner to engage (“Why don’t you ever take out the garbage?”), while the other tries to simply avoid the discussion (“Honey, have you seen my keys?”).
“Over time, both husbands and wives showed a significant increase in their avoidance behaviors,” Holley explains, “meaning that both spouses were increasingly more likely to avoid conflict discussions in later life stages by doing things like diverting attention from the topic or changing the subject altogether.”
This “avoidance trend” doesn’t just apply to married couples either.
Holley says she previously compared demand-withdraw behaviors in gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships (before any states allowed them to marry) to heterosexual married couples and noted similar patterns.
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“I found no differences in the amount of demand-withdraw behaviors any of these groups demonstrated during conflict discussions,” she says. “Therefore, I don’t think the findings of this study are unique to married couples. I would expect that any long-term committed couples would be likely to show a similar pattern of change as they move into later life stages.”
Married or not, conflict avoidance almost always stems from a lack of communication know-how, according to Jane Greer, Ph.D., relationship expert and author of “What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship.”
“Couples fall into this pattern because they lack the tools and verbal skills they need in order to successfully negotiate conflict resolution,” she says.So over time, this avoidance pattern evolves to maintain the peace. “If there are long-standing differences in preference and both parties refuse to compromise, conflict avoidance may become the way to maintain the equilibrium of the relationship,” adds Greer.
While a lack of communication is not always healthy, it can be particularly troubling for young love, notes Holley. “Avoidance can be harmful to relationships at any age because it can get in the way of effective problem solving,” she notes. “This may be especially true in younger couples, for whom issues may be newer and feel more pressing.”
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On the flipside, detouring from a squabble before it even begins can sometimes help couples avoid toxic or hurtful subjects that go nowhere. Or you may find that you don’t get as worked up over the same issues as your partner anymore. “If you have this pattern going on and it’s been over a long period of time, you may recognize that your feelings on the topic have shifted and that you actually feel less intensely about things than previously,” explains Greer. “If so, you may be ready to let go of feeling resentful.”
So should you continue having the same spat over whose turn it is to get the groceries or which way the toilet paper should hang? Or should you simply change the touchy subject the next time your partner brings it up?
It depends, says Greer. “If you have the hot topic, never-ending fight in your relationship, it’s going to take really confronting it and working things through to figure out realistic compromises and solutions that both people can accept,” she explains. “If you’re not willing to do that, bringing up the issue is pointless and can wind up creating more animosity and distance between you.”
In other words, fix it or forget it. Besides, in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter which way the toilet paper hangs?
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