A Litmus Test for Relationships: Healthy vs. Destructive Conflict

Young couples that find it easy to engage in conversations with their partners are least likely to hold onto anger and stress after conflict.

Young couples that find it easy to engage in conversations with their partners are least likely to hold onto anger and stress after conflict.


Conflict is inevitable in any relationship. So what distinguishes healthy conflict from the kind that is more destructive?

Good conversation.

A study of conflict in young couples has found that those who were able to easily engage in rewarding conversations with their partners were less likely to hold onto anger and stress and more likely to be satisfied with their relationship.

A team of researchers from Kansas State University worked with more than 50 couples ages 18 to 20 who had been dating for a least six months but were not engaged, married, or living together. These early dating relationships are so new that according to researcher Brenda McDaniel, it can even be difficult to get the couples to engage in conflict. It's there, "but, because the relationship is so new to them, they don't want to cause a break-up."

The researchers looked at stress hormone levels after participants spent 20 minutes talking about a topic that typically caused relationship tension. Often, conflict occurred when one partner treated the other differently in front of family, did not introduce the other to parents and friends, or was flirting with someone else.

The goal was not to see if the couple would resolve the conflict in such a short period of time, but to use the stress response to see how well couples recovered from that conflict.

After having the stressful discussion, couples spent 20 minutes discussing a happy shared time during their relationship. Some of the positive discussions involved remembering their first date, their first kiss, or a vacation together. In addition to tracking the stress hormone cortisol as a measure of stress, the researchers videotaped participants' emotional reactions before, during, and after both the conflict discussion and the happy memories discussion.

If the subjects' cortisol levels were low before the conflict discussion, high after the conflict discussion, and low again after the happier discussion -- the person often reported higher relationship satisfaction and higher relationship closeness. Those whose cortisol levels stayed high rather than coming back down after the happier discussion reported lower relationship satisfaction and less relationship closeness.

"In addition to recovery being associated with positive relationship outcomes, we also saw recovery being related to conversation flow," McDaniel said. People who were so engaged in conversation with their partner that they lost track of time, or had a feeling of enjoyment or positive energy from the experience were considered to have this kind of conversational flow.

People whose stress hormones remained high were not able to enter into this state of flow, a psychological state often likened to that of an athlete performing at his or her peak with little sense of effort, or an artist immersed in the process of creating.

Engaging in flow is often associated with positive characteristics of relationships. "While more research needs to be done, this positive rewarding state of flow during conversation may be one of the factors that create enduring marital relationships," McDaniel said. She recommends that you consider the quality of your relationship's conversation when evaluating a relationship. "The partners that provide you with the most rewarding experience during those conversations are likely the ones to pursue."

The study was presented on January 27 at the thirteenth annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. It has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Image: Petr Vaclavek/Shutterstock.

This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.