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Navigating conflict when opposites attract

When it comes to conflict, some people follow the phrase you should "never go to bed angry” while others would rather get their beauty sleep.

Couples with mismatched conflict styles don’t necessarily suffer a hit in relationship quality according to a new study. Professors Dean Busby and Thomas Holman of Brigham Young University's School of Family Life gathered and analyzed data from nearly 2,000 couples and report their findings in the Nov. 25 issue of the academic journal Family Process.

“The concern with mismatched couples is that they will have problems that are just never quite resolvable,” Holman said. “But it’s really about getting to a point where a problem becomes less important to them than the relationship itself.”

The study participants completed a comprehensive relationship inventory called RELATE. The survey covers more than 300 areas known to be predictive of marital quality. Upon completion of the relationship inventory, the couple gets an 11 page report with charts and graphs illustrating the strengths and weaknesses of their relationship.

Just as many couples had mismatched conflict styles as had matching approaches (not counting couples considered to have an openly “hostile” dynamic). Depending on the type of mismatch, the data show that certain pairings present bigger red flags for relationship quality than others.

“There are several couples that work through it,” Busby said. “But we know that how couples manage conflict is one of those crucial factors that can lead to divorce.”

So what are the conflict styles and which one fits your personality? And how can you work through a mismatched pairing?

The “Avoidant”

Avoidant people minimize conflict as much as possible. They still interact with their spouse but avoid contentious issues. They think there is little to gain from getting openly angry, and that problems have a way of working themselves out if you just relax.

The “Validating”

Validating people make certain that both sides are heard and that their partner’s views are appreciated. They believe in remaining calm and displaying self-control. They spend equal amounts of time validating others and searching for a compromise.

The “Volatile”

Volatile people are usually more passionate, louder and more energetic; they don’t shy from a lively debate. They believe that differences are resolved by getting everything out in the open. Their intensity is often balanced with kind and loving expressions.

The “Hostile”

The only non-functional style, hostile people can be described as destructive. In conflict they try to tear the other person down and at times stonewall all contact with their spouse.

“It’s hard to recover from a hostile conflict without some help I believe,” Busby said. “Hostility gets to a place where you scar people.”

Worst (Functional) Conflict Pairing

The worst functional mismatched conflict style is the avoidant-volatile pair. The good news is that it was the least common pairing in the study, representing a little more than 1 in 10 couples.

Many couples in this situation fall into the trap of attributing their partner’s motives incorrectly. Sincere attempts to resolve a conflict and restore harmony can be construed as nagging.

Something that can help in this situation is to wait until the emotional flood subsides before trying to resolve the issue.

“One couple I taught this to were marathon runners and they would watch their wrist watches and saw that as soon as they started arguing their pulse rates jumped way up,” Holman said. “Once they had their pulse rates back down they would start the conversation again. They said it helped them to monitor their actual physiological reaction in a conflict.”

Best Conflict Pair

Several combinations promote relationship health, and the key is that at least one of the partners is the validating type. The researchers note that it’s a skill that can be learned.

“Validating types make sure that their partner feels understood and that both perspectives are attended to,” Busby said. “They are more likely to create a positive connection around that conflict.”

The researcher who pioneered these conflict styles, John Gottman, found that in a healthy conflict style there are five positive exchanges for every one negative exchange. In dysfunctional styles the negative exchanges outnumber the positive.

“The idea that we should never argue, is clearly not what we are talking about in this article,” Busby said. “It’s that you have to find a way to work together so that you can resolve problems with a style that fits for both of you.”

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Story Highlights

  • New study analyzes different styles of conflict within couples and the impact on relationship quality
  • A "Volatile / Avoidant" mismatch is the trickiest pairing in functional relationships
  • Having at least one "Validator" in the relationship makes for better relationship quality
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