Does constructive conflict prevent divorce?

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There is a lot of scientific evidence that has documented the harmful effects of destructive conflict on marital relationships. John Gottman, in his book, What Predicts Divorce (1994) reported that when couples expressed contempt and criticism in the course of an argument they were more likely to divorce.

But if destructive conflict is bad for marriages, is constructive conflict good for them? All married couples disagree, but some couples in their disagreements listen carefully to their partner's complaints, say nice things about their partner and try to discuss the issue more calmly. Kira Birditt at the University of Michigan and her colleagues recently reported on a sample of almost 400 couples (both African-American and White) that had been followed for 16 years. Over this period of time both husbands and wives were asked to describe their conflicts and how they managed these situations. Their behaviors were classified into four different patterns--destructive, constructive, quiet withdrawal and "leaving withdrawal." The researchers were interested in understanding the changes in conflict strategies over the 16 years and whether types of conflict predicted divorce rates.

More evidence that destructive conflicts leads to less stable marriages. First, like many other studies Birditt and her colleagues found that husbands and wives who used more destructive tactics such as yelling, insults, criticism and contempt were more likely to divorce. They also found that wives who used quiet withdrawal and husbands who used leaving withdrawal were more likely to divorce.

Constructive tactics prevent divorce. When it came to constructive conflict they found that when both husbands and wives used constructive methods they were less likely to divorce. So it appears that strategies of problem solving and listening to each other made it more likely for couples to stay together. The pattern for African-American and White couples was the same.

Conflict patterns are stronger predictors than couple characteristics. It is also worth noting that the pattern of conflict was a stronger predictor of divorce than other factors commonly associated with marital stability. For example, couples who are older, who grew up with both parents, did not have children before marriage, and had more education and income are less likely to divorce, but if they use destructive conflict patterns, then divorce is more likely. On the other hand, the use of constructive conflict among couples can overcome being young, raised by a single parent, and having less education and income, and lead to a more stable relationship.

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