Communication Currents

Couples’ Thoughts during Conflict Show How Happy They Are

August 1, 2013
Interpersonal Communication

Whether spoken or unspoken, all couples have disagreements. Numerous studies show that what matters in relationships is not whether you have conflict with your partner, but how you and your partner experience and manage the conflict. If you interpret everything your partner does in an argument negatively, you will be less satisfied than if you frame her or his actions more positively.

Research explaining what couples think about during conflict has suffered from two problems. First, most studies have explored partners’ thoughts retrospectively  – they ask partners to recall their thoughts or rate their thoughts after the fact. Second, studies have examined couples’ thoughts in broad terms – whether they are positive or negative. Therefore, we know relatively little about the content of couples’ thoughts during conflict.

We conducted a study on what romantic partners think about during conflict, when they are arguing. The research participants were 71 young, unmarried couples who had been involved in their relationship for an average of three years. At the start of the investigation, participants listed topics of disagreement in their relationship. Typical topics included time spent together, money, substance abuse, and past romantic relationships. We selected a topic listed by both partners, placed the partners in separate rooms, and asked them to chat online with each other about the conflict topic for 10 minutes. While the partners discussed their conflict online, we asked them to talk out loud about what they were thinking. The participants’ talk-aloud thoughts were recorded and analyzed.

The study showed a number of differences between the thoughts of happy and unhappy couples. During conversations, people who were unhappy in their romantic relationships spent more time thinking about how angry and frustrated they were. They also were more likely to think about how much power they, or their partner, had in the relationship. And, compared to people who were happy in their relationships, unhappy partners’ thoughts were marked by greater inflexibility.

There also were some gender differences in what people thought about. For example, men who were satisfied with their relationships were less likely to have pessimistic thoughts than men who were dissatisfied. Women who were satisfied with their relationship were more positively involved in their conversations with their partners. They spent more time during conflict with their partners elaborating, in their minds, about the topics or opinions under discussion than women who were unhappy. In other words, women who were more satisfied with their relationship spent more time and mental resources analyzing relationship issues – in a neutral, as opposed to a negative, way.

Even though previous research suggests women think about and analyze relationships more than do men – and that women’s thoughts are more closely linked to their satisfaction than are men’s – our study’s findings suggest that gender differences between women’s and men’s thoughts are modest. In fact, our findings indicate there was only one gender-based difference in partners’ thoughts: Women had more thoughts involving blame than did men. That is, women’s thoughts were more likely to reflect complaints about their partner, attribute fault to their partner, and justify their own behavior.

Our analyses also revealed a number of links between both men’s and women’s thoughts and their own relational satisfaction. When they were unhappy in their relationship, both male and female participants had more thoughts emphasizing their anger and frustration, power issues, inflexibility, or repetitious behavior. These findings call into question the portrayal of men in prior research as cognitive misers when it comes to their romantic relationships. A number of studies suggest that men think about and analyze relationships less than women do. But our study indicates that the content of men’s thoughts does not differ much from the content of women’s thoughts. Equally important, the thoughts men have as they interact with their female partners are linked, in meaningful ways, to their relational satisfaction.

There also were interesting findings about how one partner’s thoughts were related to the other partner’s satisfaction. People who spent time during conflict with their partner thinking about their anger and frustration were more likely to have a partner who was unhappy in the relationship. Similarly, when people’s thoughts reflected stonewalling – when people denied the existence of a problem, made excuses, or denied their role in a conflict – their partner was less happy.

How is it that one partner’s thoughts affect the other’s satisfaction? There are a couple of ways this might happen. First, people’s tendency to express thoughts involving anger, frustration, or stonewalling may be reflected in their communication which, in turn, could influence their partner’s satisfaction over time. Second, their partner’s dissatisfaction with the relationship may be expressed in his or her communication and that communication may create a context that encourages people to have thoughts focused on anger, frustration, or stonewalling. It also is possible both of these explanations operate simultaneously and certain conditions or circumstances preference one of the two explanations over the other.

Another important finding of our study was that happy couples coordinated their thoughts during their conflict interactions. So, for example, when one partner had a high number of emotion-related thoughts, the other had a low number. It may be that while one partner considered emotional issues, the other contemplated how to process those issues. Similarly, in happy relationships, when one partner had a high number of thoughts about disagreement, the other had a low number. In other words, when one was thinking a lot about the disagreement, the other, instead, may have been thinking about things such as how to understand his/her partner or how to resolve the conflict. Dissatisfied partners, in contrast to those who were satisfied, may both concentrate on emotion or on concerns associated with the disagreement and, as a result, may have more difficulty resolving their conflicts. 

What do the results of our study suggest couples should do to best manage conflict in their relationship? First, and most generally, they suggest partners’ thoughts matter. What you say and do in a conflict is important, but what you think about also may affect how happy you are and even how happy your partner is. Second, our findings indicate thoughts focusing on anger, frustration, power, and inflexibility are more likely when partners are unhappy in their relationships. So if you are in a relationship you care about and you find yourself thinking angry, frustrated thoughts or you find yourself ruminating about how much power your partner has or how inflexible he or she is, it might be good to take time out and recalibrate what you are thinking. Third, our study suggests it may be helpful for couples to coordinate some of their thoughts during conflict. People who are happy in their relationship seem to be in tune with what their partner is thinking: When one partner is highly emotional, the other is not; when one is thinking a lot about the disagreement, the other is not. Considering your partner’s thoughts and adjusting your thoughts accordingly may help both you and your partner focus on resolving the conflict.

About the author (s)

Anita Vangelisti

University of Texas at Austin

Professor