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Marriage: A Chance to Have a Good Fight

Think about how much you fight and argue with your partner or spouse today. A new study suggests that your current level of conflict probably won’t change much for the remainder of your relationship. Maybe that's something to THINK about before you get married!

That may be good news for the 16% of couples who report little conflict or even the 60% who have only moderate levels of conflict. But it’s not such happy news for the 22% of couples who say they fight and argue with each other a lot. A study that followed nearly 1,000 couples over 20 years, from 1980 to 2000, came up with the following results: "There wasn't much change in conflict over time," says researcher Claire Kamp Dush. "There was a very slight decrease in the amount of conflict reported in the final years of the study, which was slightly larger for the high-conflict couples. Still, the differences over time were small."

Their telephone surveys started with 2,033 married people 55 years of age and younger in 1980, when the study began. Many of the same people were interviewed five more times through 2000. They were asked a variety of questions about the quality of their marriage and their relationship with their spouses, as well as demographic questions. Marital conflict was measured by how often respondents said they disagreed with their spouse: never, rarely, sometimes, often or very often.

The researchers learned how to avoid marital conflict. They found that people in low-conflict marriages were more likely than others to say they shared decision-making with their spouses. Kamp Dush says, "That's interesting because you might think that making decisions jointly would create more opportunities for conflict, but that's not what we found. It may be that if both spouses have a say in decision making, they are more satisfied with their relationship and are less likely to fight."

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People have radically different conflict behaviors; the real issue is to get people of the same type together. For example, in some families, it is important to treat each other better than you treat outsiders. In other families, members are expected to put up with LESS respect and consideration than shown to people at large. Some individuals derive intimacy from conflict, others from concord.
My wife and I have fragile egos and extend the utmost consideration to each other, and it works for us. We don't have serious conflicts, and what problems we have, we live with. Of course, we have had 19 years to practice these behaviors...

I should add one of my favorite aphorisms, from Stewart Brand (in the old Whole Earth Catalog), as he mused about the foam "boffers" that were once used to stage mock battles where the fighters got a lot of aggression out of their systems without doing any damage: "Contact is the only love." Ever seen boxers or martial artists collapse into each others' arms and hug after battle? It's the rule rather than the exception.

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