It’s a familiar mantra that marriage counselors rely upon in advising their couples — talk about conflicts and try to resolve them, rather than letting suppressed feelings fester until they poison a relationship beyond repair. But is that such good advice?
Most spouses are familiar with what marriage experts call the demand-withdraw cycle — one spouse blames or pressures his partner for some kind of change and the partner avoids the discussion, either by changing or distracting attention from the subject (avoiding) or by leaving the room or refusing to talk (withdrawing). Withdrawal is similar to stonewalling, a term coined by veteran marriage researcher John Gottman, co-founder of the Gottman Institute.
This dynamic can become an unhealthy cancer in a relationship that only tends to grow and further separate spouses from communicating. Along with criticizing someone, reacting defensively to statements and showing contempt, stonewalling is one of Gottman’s Four Horseman of the Apocalypse that send couples galloping toward divorce.
But a new study suggests that the avoidance part of the pattern may not be as damaging as counselors once thought — at least not for long-married couples over age 60. The study, led by San Francisco State University psychologist Sarah Holley, followed 127 couples for 13 years, one group ages 40 to 50 and one group of long-married couples, ages 60 to 70. At three points over that time, she videotaped them discussing an area of conflict. Over that period, all of the relationship dynamics between the couples stayed constant, including the amount of blame, pressure and withdrawal, but there was a dramatic increase among the older couples of how often both the husbands and wives avoided the difficult subject.
In a typical exchange, for example, the wife might say, “You know what, we’ve had this conversation a million times. Let’s agree to disagree. What do you think we should have for dinner?” And the husband might respond, “Do we have any of that lasagna left?”
Holley says that in these older marriages, the avoidance of conflict-laden discussions, especially when mutual, did not seem to lower marital happiness. Invoking the practice, in fact, may be neutral or even positive. And that falls in line with other studies that show that older people tend to see arguments as less important and generally to seek more positive experiences.
That’s part of the natural process of aging, says Stanford University’s Laura Carstensen, a leading researcher on the emotions of the elderly. Their emotions, particularly as expressed in the dynamic of a relationship, are more complex and layered, mixing positive and negative experiences. So when talking about difficult issues, they tend to mix affection with their negative expressions. “From where I sit,” she says, “it looks very enlightened and adaptive.”
In addition, experience may help older couples to be more adept at picking the right fights. Years of prior conflicts may have taught them to recognize which issues are worth debating and trying to resolve, and which will only devolve into unhealthy bickering. “I would never advise couples to avoid topics of conflict,” says marital therapist Mark McGonigle, “but I would advise them to avoid certain kinds of arguments.” They should steer clear, he says, of “discussions” that start with an accusation (You slob!) or a generalized complaint (You never help!).
He suggests that couples with unresolved — or even unresolvable — issues should talk about the topic in a way that helps them understand at a deep level why their partner’s fixed position, their “stake in the ground,” is so important to them. If they’re at odds over how often to have sex, for example, each should try to find out the other’s “back story.” If the wife wants more, McGonigle says, maybe she grew up in a family with little physical contact and if she’s not intimate often, she may start to feel unwanted or unloved. The husband who wants less sex might have grown up in a pushy, demanding family, and want fewer demands and the ability to say no. “If they can learn to talk this way without expecting resolution,” says McGonigle, “but to better understand each other, they get the reward of being known and knowing the other.”
Emotional tone is just as important in avoiding a discussion as in having it, Holley says. Looking at couples in her study, she notes that if they treat each other with affection and understanding, they are much less likely to do harm to their relationship. Happily married couples, say marriage experts, don’t necessarily resolve their conflicts but learn to handle them with warmth and humor.
Does that mean counselors won’t be as militant about pressuring couples to address their conflicts? Probably not. Some marriage therapists (who, like Carstensen, have not seen the new study) are not quite ready to accept that avoidance may be associated with positive relationship dynamics. They remain skeptical of its benefits and wonder if older couples who mutually avoid have, in fact, lost interest. As Sherod Miller, co-author of Talking and Listening: Couple Communication 1, says, “They’ve given up! I wouldn’t call them happy.”
Any therapist would agree, however, that there are no absolutes when it comes to relationships — and marriages are no exception. So, for younger couples who work at their conflicts with understanding and acceptance, this study shouldn’t discourage them from continuing on that path. The findings may just give them reassurance that occasionally agreeing to disagree could do more for keeping the marriage alive than attempting to resolve every dispute — and leave more time for enjoying the lasagna — together.