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Couples’ Thoughts Influence Resolution of Disagreements

“Among happy couples, when one partner is thinking a lot about disagreement or anger, the other instead may be thinking about how to understand his or her partner or how to resolve the conflict,” said lead investigator Anita Vangelisti, Ph.D., professor of communication at the University of Texas at Austin.

The findings, Vangelisti said, show that people’s thoughts during a conflict situation reflect and shape their own relationship satisfaction and can even affect how happy their partner is.

Vangelisti and her colleagues studied 71 young unmarried heterosexual couples in Texas, who had been together an average of three years. Each person was encouraged to privately express his or her thoughts aloud to a researcher while in a separate room from the other partner and while communicating about a topic of conflict with the partner via a computer chat program. The chat program showed the person’s typed messages in one section and the partner’s replies and messages in another section, but did not display the person’s vocalized thoughts, which were tape recorded.

In most cases, the couples discussed a topic of disagreement that both participants had listed in a questionnaire about conflict issues. Before the study, they also completed a questionnaire about their relationship satisfaction. Topics of conflict included amount of time spent together, money, past dating relationships, alcohol use, and friends and relatives who disapproved of their relationship. The researchers told the couples they had 10 minutes to discuss the topic and come to a resolution. A researcher sat behind the participant in each room and reminded that study subject to voice his or her thoughts throughout the interaction.

The researchers found that during a discussion involving conflict with a romantic partner, when one person thinks about making excuses or denying his or her role in the conflict, the other partner was likelier to be unhappy in the relationship than those whose partner did not “stonewall.”

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