Research shows how happy couples argue — and why this matters a lot

When you spend a lot of time with someone, conflict is unavoidable. Even the happiest couples argue every now and then — in fact, arguments and couple happiness aren’t as opposed as you may think — it’s all about how you argue.

In a recent study, researchers observed two samples of couples who self-described as ‘happily married’. The first group (57 couples)were in their mid-to-late 30s and had been married an average of nine years. The second group (64 couples) were in their early 70s and had been married an average of 42 years.

The two groups were first surveyed on what’s important to them, and had largely similar responses — which already tells you a few things about what’s generally important in couples. Things like intimacy, communication, and money were most serious, while jealousy, religion, and the rest of the family were viewed as less serious.

When it came to arguing, couples generally avoided focusing on the most complex problems, instead, strategically focusing on things that could be solved relatively easily.

“Focusing on the perpetual, more difficult-to-solve problems may undermine partners’ confidence in the relationship,” said Amy Rauer, associate professor of child and family studies and director of the Relationships and Development Lab in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. For instance, happy couples tend to not argue about whether they trust each other, but they will bicker about who’s doing more around the house.

“Re-balancing chores may not be easy, but it lends itself to more concrete solutions than other issues,” Rauer said. “One spouse could do more of certain chores to balance the scales.”

Overall, couples that were married longer tended to report fewer arguments overall — but when they do argue, they tend to argue in productive ways, focusing on things that can be solved, and emphasizing solutions rather than just venting.

“Happy couples tend to take a solution-oriented approach to conflict, and this is clear even in the topics that they choose to discuss,” said lead author Amy Rauer, associate professor of child and family studies and director of the Relationships and Development Lab in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.

Essentially, couples that stay together happily seem to (consciously or not) strategically pick their battles, and focus on battles that can be solved, and not just endless windmill fighting. Although this is a relatively small study and there can be cultural differences at play, researchers suspect that this is one of the keys to long-lasting, happy relationships.

The bottom line is not necessarily to avoid fighting — but to choose your battles carefully.

“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,” Bauer concludes.

Journal Reference: Amy Rauer, Allen K. Sabey, Christine M. Proulx, Brenda L. Volling. What are the Marital Problems of Happy Couples? A Multimethod, Two‐Sample Investigation. Family Process, 2019; DOI: 10.1111/famp.12483

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