Happy Couples: Agreeing to Disagree

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What does it take to have a successful long-term relationship? Differences among individuals make it difficult to give one solution for every disagreement. However, there are some useful things to keep in mind when facing a conflict with that special someone.

By Kate Skinner

What does it take to have a successful long-term relationship? Differences among individuals make it difficult to give one solution for every disagreement. However, there are some useful things to keep in mind when facing a conflict with that special someone.

Traditionally, there have been two schools of thought for dealing with conflict in a close relationship. One says it is best to avoid using negative communication styles like yelling or name-calling. Intentionally pushing your partner’s buttons during an argument should never be done according to this theory. The other approach says each individual needs to be allowed to express their emotions so that stress can be released and to set boundaries for future conflicts, which creates an environment for a more healthy relationship in the future.

A recent study completed by Dr. Keith Sanford at Baylor University suggests couples that experience intense conflicts but are in a satisfying relationship still find resolutions and may be more successful in their resolutions.

Dr. Richard Street, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University, says he doesn’t find the study results startling. For many years Street has worked in the field of interpersonal communication as well as communication in personal and professional relationships. “It was my understanding that the study was completed using established relationships – these people have been together for a while,” says Street.

“I do not find it surprising that people in satisfactory relationships can have more intense kinds of negative conflict and still have a more satisfying relationship after the fact relative to those couples that are unsatisfied,” he says.

Happy couples have what Street calls a history together; they will not allow a single nasty argument to tarnish their previous positive experiences solving disagreements. A couple that does not have this positive history of experiences may view a heated conflict as a negative reinforcement and add to the unsatisfactory nature of the relationship.

Street describes a scenario where an intense argument takes place. “If people are fairly emotionally charged, that may be a sign of how vested they are in that relationship. Emotions can drain, they can be fun, or not. An intense argument can reflect the importance of the relationship to the individuals and how important it is that they find a solution. Dissatisfied couples would more likely find this as a symptom of the problem [being stuck in an unhappy relationship].”

Street points out, “It’s not the style that you use [to communicate] in the moment. It’s the context in which the individual people derive meaning from the interaction. 

But what does all this mean in the middle of a fight? After all, it would be nice to have a quick and easy fix for disputes ranging from leaving the toilet seat up to buying one too many pairs of shoes. The answer is simpler than it seems.

“Relationships in the early stages are guided by normative behaviors,” Street explains. “This means early on you don’t want to make each other mad or embarrassed. As the relationship grows and evolves, each couple will develop unique rules and ‘norms’ that are just for them. The successful long-term relationships are that way because they have taken the time. What may seem to be a good or bad practice may or may not work. You just can’t generalize to more intimate couples. The way they communicate is special to them,” says Street.

The things couples enjoy, and even those they do not, are part of what makes the relationship special. To improve a relationship’s communication, even when faced with conflict, the best course is to remember why you were first attracted to one another.