Divorce: It’s Not If You Fight, But How You Fight That Matters

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Couple ignoring each other with wedding photo between them

Newlywed? Congratulations! Hope the wedding was grand. And now…let the fighting begin.

Marriage is a lot of things—a source of love, security, the joy of children, but it’s also an interpersonal battlefield, and it’s not hard to see why: Take two disparate people, toss them together in often-confined quarters, add the stresses of money and kids—now lather, rinse, repeat for the rest of your natural life. What could go wrong?

But if fighting is inevitable, why do so many marriages last—and, indeed, thrive—for a lifetime? The answer isn’t whether or not you fight, but how you go about it, as a study in the October issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family shows.

To conduct the research, Kira Birditt, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Michigan, analyzed data from 373 participants in the Early Years of Marriage (EYM) project, a longitudinal study run by University of Michigan social psychologist Terri Orbuch. The EYM is an ongoing survey of couples who applied for marriage licenses in Michigan’s Wayne County in 1986. The participants have been tracked at four intervals in their marriages so far—the first, third, seventh and sixteenth years—and have been asked about how frequently they fight and how they resolve their conflicts, or don’t resolve them. (More on Time.com: Not Faking It: Why a Placebo Can Improve Sex Life)

The questionnaire the subjects fill out during these surveys—which is available on-line and allows cyber-respondents to compare their score with the statistical averages—seems simple enough. Concerning a recent fight,  couples are asked to respond to such statements as “I listened to my spouse’s point of view” or “My spouse suddenly became very quiet and pulled away.” It also includes statements suggesting marital instability such as “I insulted my spouse and called him or her names” or “I yelled or shouted at my spouse.” For all of the questions, participants marked one of four responses: “Not at all true,” “Not very true,” “Somewhat true” and “Very true.” Scoring went from 1, for “Not at all true,” to 4, for “Very true.”

Some of the broad numbers the study produced were pretty much what you’d expect. About 29% of husbands and 21% of wives reported little or no conflict in their first year of marriage—confirming that for some people the idea of a honeymoon period is very real, but for many more the early adjustment to a life of wedlock presents just the challenges you’d think it would. Divorce rates, no surprise, go up over time—with 13.9% of couples in the study having busted up at the three-year mark, 29% at year seven and 46.1% at year 16.

But there were unexpected findings too. For one thing, in the early years, it’s husbands who are the more effective arguers, more inclined to use constructive behaviors such as listening and calmly discussing—though they by no means do so all the time. Wives, by contrast, are more likely to shout or withdraw. Over time, however, the husbands tend not to improve on their scores while the wives do. (More on Time.com: As Suspected, Women’s Memories Last Longer than Men’s)

“The quality of relationships may be more central to women’s lives than they are to men,” Burditt said. “As a result, over the course of marriage, women may be more likely to recognize that withdrawing from conflict or using destructive strategies is neither effective nor beneficial.”

Certainly, the numbers suggest that all progress can be incremental. Husbands, for example, start out at about 2.9 on the 1 to 4 scale for constructive behaviors at year one and hover in that vicinity throughout the study. Wives begin as high as 2.2 on the negative behavior scale at the beginning, but drop to 1.7 at the end. Mathematically, a difference of .5 is not much—but every decimal’s worth of improvement means fights avoided or successfully resolved. Pile enough of those up and you just might save a marriage.

To get the real benefit of improvement, however, takes more than simply improving your own score. Your spouse must play ball too. Birditt found, for example, that in some cases, the rate of divorce actually rose by about two thirds among wives who learned to practice constructive behaviors such as speaking calmly or openly listening. That’s because in those cases, the husbands were conspicuously not practicing the same skills.

“When you use constructive behaviors and your partner is leaving the room, that’s just not going to work,” she says. “Both people have to be using the same constructive behaviors together.” Significantly, when it was the husbands who took the initiative and behaved constructively, the rate of divorce actually went down by the equivalent of 14%, suggesting that women may do a better job of following a positive lead than men do. (More on Time.com: ‘It Gets Better’: Wisdom From Grown-Up Gays and Lesbians to Bullied Kids)

Birditt also found that the talk-it-out dictum that is the coin of the realm in couples therapy and marriage manuals does have its limits. Indeed, it can often be a very good idea to walk away from a conflict—at least for a while. The key, again, is how you do it.

When a husband withdraws angrily or smolderingly, the rate of divorce increases by about a quarter over time. When a wife acts out that way, the danger ticks up as well, though only the equivalent of 3%, which is not statistically significant in this study. On the other hand, a quiet withdrawal, perhaps to collect your thoughts or avoid losing your temper, can lower the rate of divorce—though here too Birditt cannot say the numbers cross the statistical significance threshold. What’s clear from that less than clear data is that a tactical and temporary withdrawal  does not appear to increase the divorce rate.

“We do see predictable behavior,” says Birditt. “That’s what’s exciting about this study.”

Statistical certainty, of course, goes only so far, as Birditt herself admits. The less fathomable something is to us—and there’s nothing quite as mystifying as marriage—the more comfort we take when we can reduce it to crunchable numbers. But wedlock can’t be weighed; a house and home can’t be distilled to data. The best you can sometimes do is learn to take a breath, count to ten and simply accept that try as you might, no, your husband will never, ever learn not to drop a wet towel on the bed. That acceptance too counts as resolving a fight.

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