How a Couple Fights is a Strong Predictor of Divorce

February 5, 2007

by Frank Raczkiewicz

While all couples may have conflict in their relationship, a Baylor University researcher has found it is not if a couple fights and argues, but how they communicate during their conflict that can determine whether a couple will stay together for the long haul.

Dr. Keith Sanford, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, studied hundreds of couples as they communicated through a fight. Sanford and his research team focused on what determines whether a person will use positive or negative communication during an argument. He found that emotion and the types of thoughts a person uses are especially important.

Perhaps the most interesting finding is that negative emotion can actually be a good thing. Sanford distinguished between two types of negative emotion, "hard" and "soft." "Hard" emotion is associated with asserting power, whereas "soft" emotion is associated with expressing vulnerability. Sanford and his team consistently found that hard emotion escalated fights, but they also found that soft negative emotion is generally beneficial for relationships. Soft emotion appeared to increase a couple's motivation to address a conflict and often led to productive approaches toward resolving the conflict.

"There is a notion that all negative emotion is bad and we found that simply isn't the case," Sanford said "As humans, we are very sensitive to 'is this person going to fight against me or cooperate with me.' If you say more things that signal that you willing to cooperate, that can make all the difference."

Sanford also found that men and women approach arguments differently. His research focused on predictions that men and women make regarding what they think their partners are likely to do. He found that couples often appear to be driven by their expectations during a fight. For example, if a wife thinks that her husband will refuse to listen to her viewpoint, she is likely to use negative communication, and she is likely to do this regardless of what her husband actually does. Sanford said he was intrigued to find that wives' expectations are a stronger predictor of communication than are husbands' expectations. Specifically, wives expectations are based on what is currently taking place in the interaction with their husband. Husbands' expectations are based on their global feelings toward the relationship as a whole.

"It's a tendency that women are more event-dependent and men are more schematic," Sanford said. "The simple take home message is be aware of your thoughts and how you are interpreting things because it could have a negative bias and that could lead to further escalation."

The results of Sanford's studies have been published in the Journal of Family Psychology and also will appear in a forthcoming article in Personal Relationships.

For more information, contact Dr. Sanford at (254) 710-2256.