Family Matters

Argue Much? Conflict Levels in Marriage Don’t Change Over Time

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If you squabble a lot with your sweetie, don’t think that things will improve after getting hitched. New research shows that conflict levels don’t vary much over the course of marriage. (The good news, conversely, is that if you get along well, you’re likely to continue along that same trajectory.)

The new research by Ohio State University researchers also showed that satisfied marriages can take many forms. Just because a relationship isn’t tranquil doesn’t mean it’s unhappy. Likewise, a marriage devoid of fighting doesn’t necessarily indicate happily-ever-after.

“Marital quality has multiple dimensions,” says Claire Kamp Dush, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “The most important takeaway is there is a lot of stability in conflict. If you’re finding it difficult to live with the level of conflict in your relationship before you get married, you probably shouldn’t get married.”

Knowing how much of a toll kids can take on a couple’s marriage, experts have traditionally assumed that marital satisfaction resembles a U-shaped curve: it starts out high for newlyweds, declines once children arrive on the scene and creeps back up once the kids leave home.

But research over the last decade has showed that while marital bliss indeed declines post-kids, it doesn’t appear to subsequently rebound. “It’s not like your kids leaving is a magic potion for your marriage,” says Kamp Dush.

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Relying on data collected from 2,000 married people from 1980 to 2000, researchers looked at the quality of a couple’s marriage and how the couple related to one another. They identified three subgroups: low-conflict, which accounted for 16% of people; moderate-conflict, or 60% of participants; and high-conflict, which comprised 22% of the respondants. The groups largely stayed consistent over 20 years.

Then, researchers further classified the groups into four categories: volatile, validator, hostile and avoider. Here’s how that broke down, according to the research, which was published online recently in the Journal of Family Issues:

  • Volatile: 20%, considered high-conflict and high- or mid-level happiness
  • Validator: 54%, associated with low levels of divorce. This is the stereotypical “good marriage,” marked by high- to mid-levels of happiness and moderate levels of conflict. Such couples often share in the decision-making and housework.
  • Hostile: 20%, most likely to divorce. These couples report being unhappy, regardless of whether or not they argue.
  • Avoider: 6%, considered low-conflict and high- or mid-happiness. These couples believe marriage should last forever and often hail from an era when husbands were not involved in housework.

Despite the unhelpful hubby, avoider couples are satisfied. Validators — the modern “happy couple” — are too.

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There’s regular debate in the marriage literature about whether traditional or egalitarian marriages are better. Egalitarian marriages, Kamp points out, wouldn’t be superior if the people involved are overly individualistic and thus less committed. But more traditional marriages where divorce is not an option — and arguing is repressed — may result in two very unhappy people.

In which group does your relationship fall? “Before you get married,” says Kamp Dush, “you need to think about the level of conflict you can tolerate.”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.