Healthy Fights? 4 Conflict Styles That Save—or Sabotage—Marriages

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What keeps a marriage healthy? Well, there’s obviously no one answer or magic formula (if there were, the divorce rate probably wouldn’t be holding steady at about 50%). But researchers continue to study couples in an attempt to eek out any information they can about what increases or decreases marital satisfaction.

One particularly important piece is how you and your partner fight—and maybe even more importantly, how you then resolve your conflicts and move on. Robert Levenson, PhD, director of the Institute of Personality and Social Research at the University of California, Berkeley, has been eavesdropping on the same 156 couples since 1989, tracking the inner workings of their marriages. Here are a few of his findings that seems to signal greater marriage satisfaction:

Wives should take the lead to cool down conflicts. Levenson’s most recent findings revealed that women may hold the key to resolving arguments. The relationships in which the wives cooled down quickly after an argument were the happiest in both the short and long term.

It’s important to be more versatile. “What’s good for one partner might not help the other,” says Levenson. (Like when guys jump straight to problem-solving mode, for example.) “You need to have different approaches for interacting with each other and tailor them to the situation and which one of you is upset.”

Say “we” instead of “me.” In 2009, Levenson and his colleagues listened in on marital conflicts and took notes of the personal pronouns the couples used. The ones who said “we” the most ranked significantly higher in marital satisfaction than those couples who repeatedly used “I” and “me” while arguing.

Accept some things as they are. It’s no surprise that couples who go into a marriage expecting their partner to change, spend their lives together butting heads. “Realizing you can’t change everything you’d like to—and accepting that—leads to more satisfying marriages,” says Levenson.

“One thing that’s encouraging is that if you look at the couples who stay together, they do get happier and more emotionally positive over time,” says Levenson. “Maybe you come to appreciate the things that are good and stop focusing so much on things you can’t resolve.”

In other words, if you hang in there and figure out how to weather all the predictable challenges that come up over the years—merging lives, having kids, dealing with finances, aging parents, changes in health—you will be rewarded in the end.

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