Conflict levels don’t change much over the course of a marriage. Is that good news or bad news? In fact, is it even news at all?
A new study which followed nearly 1,000 couples over 20 years, from 1980 to 2000 has established that the level of conflict in a relationship does not change much over time.
The study which was lead by Claire Kamp Dush, assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University, used data from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course survey, conducted by researchers at Penn State University.
The telephone surveys started with 2,033 married people 55 years of age and younger in 1980, when the study began. Many of the same people were interviewed five more times through to 2000.
They were asked a variety of questions about the quality of their marriage and their relationship with their spouses, as well as demographic questions.
Marital conflict was measured by how often respondents said they disagreed with their spouse: never, rarely, sometimes, often or very often.
Based on these results, Kamp Dush and Taylor separated the respondents into high (22%), middle (60%) and low (16%) conflict marriages.
The researchers found that people in low-conflict marriages were more likely than others to say they shared decision-making with their spouses.
As Kamp Dush points out, “That’s interesting because you might think that making decisions jointly would create more opportunities for conflict, but that’s not what we found,”
“There was a very slight decrease in the amount of conflict reported in the final years of the study, which was slightly larger for the high-conflict couples. Still, the differences over time were small.”
“It may be that if both spouses have a say in decision making, they are more satisfied with their relationship and are less likely to fight. Or people who believe marriage should last forever may also believe that fighting is just not worth it. They may be more likely to just let disagreements go.”
When the researchers looked at how conflict was related to overall marital happiness they found two different types of low – conflict couples..
They used a classification system developed by psychologists that classifies marriages into four general types: volatile, validator, hostile and avoider.
The lower conflict couples who had equal decision making tended to fall into the validator marriage category. These couples reported high and middle levels of happiness and no more than middle levels of conflict. About 54 percent of couples were in this category, and had low levels of divorce.
“The validator marriages are often seen as positive because couples are engaged with each other and are happy. We found that in these marriages, each partner shared in decision making and in housework,” Kamp Dush said.
The other low conflict couples (6%) were in avoider marriages. These couples had more traditional marriages in which husbands were not involved in housework and in which the participants believed in life-long marriage. These couples were also unlikely to divorce.
About 20 percent of those surveyed were in volatile marriages – high conflict and high or middle levels of happiness. The remaining participants were in hostile marriages, which were the most likely to divorce.
In her staggeringly obvious conclusion, Kamp Dush points out that “While couples in both validator and avoider marriages tended to have lower levels of conflict, validator marriages may be the healthiest for couples because avoiding conflict can lead couples to avoid other types of engagement with their spouse. A healthy marriage needs to have both spouses engaged and invested in the relationship.”
Kamp Dush conducted the study with Miles Taylor of Florida State University. The results appear online in the Journal of Family Issues and will be published in a future print edition.