A new study from Ohio State University is challenging long-help assumptions about marital happiness, arguing, and how to stop divorce. Married couples are often assumed to start out relatively blissful and then dissolve into bickering and fighting. However, it turns out that a couple’s level of fighting and happiness are both stable factors over the course of a relationship. Researches identified three types of marriages among 2,000 married couples over two decades: low-conflict, (16% of participants); moderate-conflict, (60%); and high-conflict (22%). They found that these groups stayed more or less consistent over the 20 year study.
Interestingly, the study found that the frequency of argument did not necessarily predict how happy or unhappy a couples was. Rather, levels of positivity, intimacy, and resolution skills were more important. In other words, a marriage that had disagreements did not mean misery, and a marriage devoid of conflict did not necessarily stop divorce.
Certain couples were designated as “volatile,” meaning they had high conflict but also mid to high happiness ratings. These couples may have disagreements often, but I’m guessing they are strong on other skill areas such as resolution and intimacy. After all, it is inevitable that you and your spouse will be at odds about things; the key is knowing how to deal with that without causing hurt feelings.
The most divorce prone group was described as “hostile”. Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether or not these couples argued much–they were miserable. Hostility is a pattern of negativity that can take many forms. Dr. Heitler and I have talked before about how toxic even small bits of negativity can be. Habits that are all not outright forms of conflict–such as sarcasm, put-downs, avoidance, the silent treatment, and passive-aggressive acts–can be just as tragically damaging to a marriage. According to the study, these are the danger signs to watch out for the most in your relationship.
This study brings up some very good advice for thinking about marriage. Marriage is a huge decision–it is a commitment for life. Chances are you are marrying your loved one because you intend that relationship to last and stop divorce. Take a good long look at how you interact as a couple now. Although you both will continue to change and grow as people, this right now is the basis for how you will interact for life. It is especially important to look for warning signs of abuse and control in your relationship. Does your fiance do things that make you seriously uncomfortable? These behaviors will NOT disappear after you wed. This is the time to seriously evaluate if you want to be legally, emotionally and spiritually bound together.
At the same time, I firmly believe any relationship is open to change with the right tools and dedication. I would be interested to see the statistics for relationship counseling among these subjects. Did any of them try couples counseling or marriage enrichment to improve their marriage? While this study shows even “hi-conflict” marriages can be happy, I would argue that if couples made the switch to low conflict, they could be even happier. Conflict takes up time and energy that could instead be put towards building a loving and supportive marriage. Real transformation can be accomplished with skill based learning and practice. We all have the ability to change our habits if we truly dedicate ourselves to the task. So don’t just settle for the marriage you have if you feel it could be better. Go out and chase your happily-ever-after!