Marital Conflict May Not Ease Over Time

But Researchers Say a 'High-Conflict' Marriage Isn't Always a Sign of an Unhappy Marriage

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 18, 2011 -- If you argue a lot now with your spouse, chances are you'll still be arguing the same amount next year, and the next, and the next, new research shows.

While common sense might suggest that people work out their differences over time, and that marital conflict declines, the new study found otherwise. "Marital conflict seemed fairly stable," says Claire Kamp Dush, PhD, professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.

However, that news isn't all bad, she says. "Just because you are 'high conflict' doesn't mean you aren't happy in your marriage."

People in high-conflict marriages have higher odds of divorce, she says. But not all of them split up. In her follow-up of nearly 1,000 couples, about 14% were classified as both "high conflict" and "high happiness."

"We don't know if they enjoy the fighting or if they enjoy their marriages despite the fighting," she tells WebMD.

In the study, she looked at both conflict and happiness. She identified certain qualities that predicted happiness or satisfaction in the marriage.

The study is published in the Journal of Family Issues.

Marital Conflict and Marital Happiness

Kamp Dush and her colleagues used data from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course Survey. It was conducted by Penn State University researchers.

The study began in 1980, when the researchers interviewed 2,033 couples, age 55 and younger, by phone. Many of the same couples were interviewed five more times through 2000. Nearly 1,000 couples were followed for 20 years.

The couples answered questions about how often they had disagreements with their spouses. The options were: never, rarely, sometimes, often, or very often.

Depending on the answers, the marriages were classified as high, middle, or low conflict.

The couples also answered questions about marital quality and happiness. The researchers then put the marriages in the categories of high, medium, or low happiness.

The couples answered other questions, such as their beliefs about marriage and about how they handled household chores and how they made decisions.

Why Some High-Conflict Couples Are Also Happy

Over time, the conflict levels stayed about the same. The high-conflict couples remained high conflict. They were in the minority, however. About 23% were in high-conflict marriages, Kamp Dush tells WebMD.

However, ''14% of the sample were high conflict and high happiness," she says.

She is not sure what to make of high-conflict, high-happiness couples. Why they stay together is somewhat of a mystery. "They might fight a lot, but like the make-up sex," she says.

Most couples, over 60%, had medium conflict. The rest, nearly 17%, had low conflict.

About 38% had high happiness levels, another 41% medium, and the other 21% low happiness levels.

Certain qualities and beliefs did predict levels of conflict and satisfaction.

For instance, those in low-conflict marriages were more likely to say they shared decision-making with their spouses.

Those who believe in lifelong marriage, as well as those who are more religious, were more likely to have high-happiness, low-conflict marriages. They were unlikely to divorce.

Couples in which husbands shared housework chores were also more likely to be classified as high happiness, low conflict. They were less likely to divorce than other couples.

More than half the couples were in marriages with high or middle happiness levels and middle levels of conflict, she found.

As for what is ''high'' or ''low'' conflict, Kamp Dush says she cannot quantify it in terms of the number of arguments or disagreements in a specific time period. "It's totally subjective," she says. Factors such as a person's own perception play in and differ from person to person, she says.

Advice for Couples

The findings suggest that a blending of old and new works well for today's marriages, says W. Bradford Wilcox, PhD, director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia. He reviewed the findings but wasn't involved in the research.

"Specifically, couples who are progressive in the sense that they share decisions and chores do better," he says. "But couples who oppose divorce and believe strongly in lifelong marriage were happier and less likely to engage in conflict."

In one sense, the findings are surprising because the literature on marital quality tends to emphasize negative or deficiency aspects of the marital relationships, says Elaine Wethington, PhD, professor of human development at Cornell University.

This new research, she says, is more balanced. With an emphasis on positive aspects as well, it is refreshing, she says. Wethington was not involved in the research.

As for those high-conflict couples? "My advice would be to resolve what seem to be minor difficulties before they become larger ones," she says. "It is very important to learn how to resolve conflicts in positive ways that do not belittle the other person in a relationship."

High-conflict partners need to seek out friends and social outlets, says Wilcox, as it can reduce stress.

The study findings reflect other research that finds both commitment and constructive communication are important for good marital quality, says Ben Loew, a researcher at the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver.


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SOURCES: Claire Kamp Dush, PhD, professor of human development and family science, Ohio State University, Columbus.Kamp Dush, C. Journal of Family Issues, published online Aug. 15, 2011.Elaine Wethington, PhD, professor of human development, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.W. Bradford Wilcox, PhD, director, National Marriage Project; associate professor of sociology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.Ben Loew, research assistant, Center for Marital and Family Studies, University of Denver. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.