In marriage, conflict occurs when the needs and desires of spouses diverge and are thus incompatible. Because spouses interact with each other regarding a number of issues important to their marriage over time, it is inevitable that conflict will occur to at least some degree in every marriage. It is not the existence of conflict in marriage per se that is detrimental to marital satisfaction or stability, but how spouses manage conflict when it occurs. Conflicts can be settled positively through discussion, but in some cases may result in the escalation of arguing without resolution, or with each spouse ignoring the area of conflict in an attempt to prevent negative marital interactions. The quality of the marriage suffers when conflicts remain unresolved, and in some marriages the inability to successfully manage conflict can lead to physical abuse, sometimes with severe consequences. Understanding the causes and consequences of marital conflict has been the target of a growing body of empirical research, and the results of this research have been useful in developing therapeutic programs aimed at assisting spouses to manage conflict in a positive manner.
One influential model created by Caryl Rusbult and her colleagues to explain how spouses manage marital conflict is called the exit-voice-loyalty-neglect model (Rusbult and Zembrodt 1983). This model stipulates that spouses can respond to conflict in a positive or negative fashion, and in either an active or passive manner. Walking away from a partner during a conflict (exit), for example, reflects an active/negative way to deal with conflict, whereas ignoring the negative event (neglect) reflects a passive/negative way to deal with conflict. By contrast, openly discussing the conflict and attempting to resolve it (voice) reflects an active/positive way to deal with conflict, whereas hoping that the partner will work alone to solve the problem (loyalty) reflects a passive/positive manner of conflict resolution. In general, voice offers the best opportunity for resolving conflict, while the other options tend to prolong the conflict and erode marital quality.
A second influential model of understanding how spouses manage marital conflict has been developed by John Gottman (1994) over several years. In Gottman’s original research, married couples that had reported being very happy or very unhappy with their marriage were asked to discuss areas of conflict in their marriage while being videotaped. Through careful observation of these interactions, it was found that unhappy spouses tended to frequently criticize each other, respond defensively to their partners’ comments, treat their partners with contempt, and emotionally withdraw from the discussion. Gottman also found that the more spouses engaged in these four types of behaviors while managing conflicts, the more likely they were to experience declines in marital satisfaction and to eventually divorce.
When faced with marital conflict, certain people are more likely than others to engage in negative interpersonal behaviors. For instance, some people tend to be very anxious about how much their romantic partners love them, fearing that their partners may eventually abandon the relationship. When relationship conflicts occur, these anxious individuals are more likely to become very upset and to believe that their partners will leave them (Campbell, Simpson, Boldry, and Kashy 2005). Also, people that chronically feel less loved by their partners behave more negatively toward their partners in the face of marital conflict (Murray, Bellavia, Rose, and Griffin 2003). Ironically, although these people fear the loss of their spouse and relationship, when conflicts arise, they tend to behave in ways that have been shown to destabilize marriages.
The inability to successfully manage conflict in marriage is also linked with declines in physical well-being. Research in the late twentieth century revealed that marital disagreement is related to increased blood pressure and heart rate, as well as with alterations in immune functioning. For instance, in a 1998 study of 93 newlywed couples, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and colleagues found that hostile interactions observed while couples attempted to resolve a relationship conflict were associated with increased levels of epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine, and growth hormone, as well as greater immunological change over the subsequent twenty-four hours. This pattern of results was replicated in a sample of older couples who had been married an average of forty-two years. Therefore, because stressful interpersonal events can result in immunosuppression, which leaves people more vulnerable to a variety of illnesses, couples that are not effective at managing marital disagreement expose themselves to increased physiological stress over time, which leaves them vulnerable to health problems.
In a 1993 article, Craig Ewart finds that the presence or absence of negative behaviors directed toward spouses while discussing relationship conflicts is more responsible for physiological changes than are positive behaviors. For example, hostile marital interactions produced significant increases in blood pressure among patients with hypertension, whereas neither positive nor neutral behaviors were associated with change. Kiecolt-Glaser and colleagues also found that negative, but not positive, behaviors were related to decreases in immune functioning in both short-and long-term marriages. Therefore, responding to marital conflicts with negative interpersonal behaviors is particularly bad for the stability of the marriage and for one’s physical health.
Therapeutic approaches to marital therapy have been greatly influenced by research on conflict resolution in marriage. Overall, it is agreed that therapy is most effective when both spouses participate. Some therapeutic approaches focus directly on altering the behavior of spouses during conflicts. Spouses are taught to identify their negative interpersonal behaviors during conflict, to discontinue the use of these behaviors, and to engage in more positive forms of conflict resolution as suggested by the therapist. Alternatively, other therapeutic approaches assume that unhappiness with the marriage is directly related with negative conflict resolution behaviors, and thus focuses on the reasons why people are unhappy with their marriage.
Therapeutic approaches to marital conflicts operate on the premise that if spouses can understand the source of their marital unhappiness and work to make a better marriage, their behaviors in the face of marital conflicts will naturally improve. Both approaches are somewhat effective for improving conflict management in marriage.
SEE ALSO Conflict; Disease; Divorce and Separation; Exit, Voice, and Loyalty; Hypertension; Infidelity; Marriage; Romance; Stress
Campbell, Lorne, Jeffry A. Simpson, Jennifer Boldry, and Deborah A. Kashy. 2005. Perceptions of Conflict and Support in Romantic Relationships: The Role of Attachment Anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 88 (3): 510–531.
Ewart, Craig K. 1993. Marital Interaction—The Context for Psychosomatic Research. Psychosomatic Medicine 55 (5): 410–412.
Gottman, John Mordechai. 1994. What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Kiecolt-Glaser, Janice K., Ronald Glaser, John T. Cacioppo, and William B. Malarkey. 1998. Marital Stress: Immunologic, Neuroendocrine, and Autonomic Correlates. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 840 (1): 656–663.
Murray, Sandra L., Gina M. Bellavia, Paul Rose, and Dale W. Griffin. 2003. Once Hurt, Twice Hurtful: How Perceived Regard Regulates Daily Marital Interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (1): 126–147.
Rusbult, Caryl E., and Isabella M. Zembrodt. 1983. Responses to Dissatisfaction in Romantic Involvements: A Multidimensional Scaling Analysis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 19: 274–293.