A new study out of the University of Michigan (U-M) reveals that divorce rates are higher in partnerships where one spouse deals with conflict constructively and the other spouse withdraws.
Researchers noted that this pattern is particularly toxic if one spouse deals with conflict constructively — by calmly discussing the situation, listening to their partner’s point of view, or trying hard to find out what their partner is feeling, for example — and the other spouse withdraws.
“This pattern seems to have a damaging effect on the longevity of marriage,” said U-M researcher Kira Birditt, first author of a study on marital conflict behaviors and implications for divorce published in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.
“Spouses who deal with conflicts constructively may view their partner’s habit of withdrawing as a lack of investment in the relationship rather than an attempt to cool down.”
On the flip side, when both spouses used constructive strategies, divorce rates were lower, according to Birditt.
One of the largest and longest research projects to look at patterns of marital conflict, the Early Years of Marriage Study provided the data determining this conflict pattern. The greater study encompassed interviews with 373 couples at four different intervals over a 16-year period beginning with a couple’s first year of marriage.
Both individual behaviors and patterns of behavior between partners were assessed to determine the effects on the likelihood of divorce. Researchers also examined whether behavior changed over time, and whether there were racial or gender differences in behavior patterns and outcomes.
The study is one of a handful that has included a high enough proportion of black couples that researchers can assess racial differences in conflict strategies and their effects.
Findings revealed that 29 percent of husbands and 21 percent of wives reported having no conflicts during their first year of marriage in 1986. By 2002, the last year of the study, 46 percent of the couples had divorced.
Past research reveals that newlyweds who yell or call each other names are also at higher risk for divorce. Researchers noted that it was interesting to find that conflict reported by couples during the first year of marriage did not affect whether they had divorced by the last year studied.
Overall, husbands reported using more constructive behaviors and fewer destructive behaviors than wives. But over time, wives were less likely to use destructive strategies or withdraw, while husbands’ use of these behaviors stayed the same through the years.
“The problems that cause wives to withdraw or use destructive behaviors early in a marriage may be resolved over time,” Birditt said. “Or, relationships and the quality of relationships may be more central to women’s lives than they are to men. As a result, over the course of marriage, women may be more likely to recognize that withdrawing from conflict or using destructive strategies is neither effective nor beneficial to the overall well-being and stability of their marriages.”
The study also revealed that black American couples were more likely to withdraw during conflicts than white couples, although black couples were less likely to withdraw from conflict over time.
Birditt said that she hopes the study will lead to additional research on marriage conflict to provide better insight into the dynamics behind how conflict changes or stabilizes over time.
The Early Years of Marriage Study was supported by funding from the National Institute of Aging and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Source: University of Michigan