This article was originally posted on Forbes
Conflict is a part of any couple relationship even with the happiest couples with a long history. Typical issues include money, sex, children, in-laws and intimacy. The pandemic has added another layer of tension to many couple relationships. It might sound conflicting (no pun intended), but a long-standing body of marital research shows that couples who argue are more likely to stay together than couples who avoid facing issues. And two new studies reveal the secret sauce: it’s the manner in which happy couples argue and under what conditions that makes them different from other couples.
How Couples Argue
A study published in Family Process showed it’s the way happy couples argue that makes a difference. Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville observed 121 couples split into two groups—married nine years and 42 years—who described themselves as happily married. The sample consisted mainly of white, heterosexual, educated couples, 57 of whom were in their mid-to-late 30s and 64 were in their early 70s. Couples ranked their most and least serious issues. Intimacy, leisure, household, communication, and money were the most serious, as well as health for the older couples; couples in both samples ranked jealousy, religion, and family as the least serious.
When researchers observed couples discussing marital problems, happy couples took a solution-oriented approach to conflict which showed up in the topics they chose to discuss. All couples focused on issues with clearer solutions, such as the distribution of household labor and how to spend leisure time. Couples rarely chose to argue about issues that were more difficult to resolve. Focusing first on more solvable problems may be an effective way to build up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship. According to lead author Dr. Amy Rauer, this strategic decision may be one of the keys to their marital success. “Focusing on the perpetual, more-difficult-to-solve problems may undermine partners’ confidence in the relationship,” Rauer said. “If couples feel that they can work together to resolve their issues, it may give them the confidence to move on to tackling the more difficult issues.”
In the final analysis, the secret sauce for happy couples is when each party chooses their battles. Focusing on issues that are more difficult to resolve might lead to less marital happiness or the dissolution of the relationship, especially if couples haven’t banked previous successes solving other marital issues. “Being able to successfully differentiate between issues that need to be resolved versus those that can be laid aside for now may be one of the keys to a long-lasting, happy relationship,” Rauer said.