Which conflicts consume couples the most?

By Thomas Bradbury, Ph.D., This Emotional Life

According to one widely-held view on couple relationships, how you argue is far more important than what you happen to be arguing about. Sex, careers, communication, toothpaste cap? No matter. The key to a good relationship is HOW you approach and discuss these issues, more so than anything special or difficult about the issue itself. There is a lot to recommend this view: couples benefit from following good ground rules for disagreeing, for example, and the emotional tone that couples take when discussing their problems gives us real information about where their relationship is headed.

But adopting this approach overlooks the possibility that some conflicts really are different – and couples failing to recognize this fact may put themselves at a real disadvantage. An excellent study by Lauren Papp and her colleagues identifies two conflicts that might be uniquely toxic in couples’ relationships, and toxic in different ways: one takes a toll because it happens so much, and the other is damaging not because it is so frequent but because it is an important topic that never really goes away.

To study couples’ everyday disagreements, Dr. Papp and her team asked husbands and wives from 100 couples – married for 12 years on average, most with two or three children, and bringing in about $50,000 in household income – to keep a diary for 15 days in which they recorded their “differences of opinion.” For each disagreement they had, spouses then provided details on how long this particular bout lasted, the feelings it generated, and how they left the issue. Asking people about a disagreement shortly after it occurred is demanding, but doing so is likely to be far more accurate than simply asking spouses what they disagree about in general, when the conflicts have faded into distant memory. Read more …