'Conflict levels don’t change much over course of marriage'

Study finds that people in low-conflict marriages more likely to say they shared decision-making with their spouses.

August 22, 2011 09:57
2 minute read.
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Couple 311. (photo credit: (Illustrative photo: Anda Chu/Contra Costa Times/M)


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Spouses, take heed: A new study suggests your current level of conflict won’t change much during the course of your marriage.

The study followed nearly 1,000 couples over 20 years, from 1980 to 2000. The study found that 16 percent of couples reported little conflict, while 60% reported moderate levels. About 22% of couples say they fight and argue a lot.

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“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, said Claire Kamp Dush, lead author of the study and assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “ Still, the differences over time were small.”

The researchers used data from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course survey, conducted by researchers at Penn State University. The telephone surveys started with 2,033 married people 55 years of age and younger in 1980, when the study began. 

They were asked about quality of marriage and relationship with their spouses, as well as demographic questions. Marital conflict was measured by how often respondents said they disagreed with their spouse.

Researchers found that people in low-conflict marriages were more likely to say they shared decision-making with their spouses. “That’s interesting because you might think that making decisions jointly would create more opportunities for conflict, but that’s not what we found,” Kamp Dush said. “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.”

People in the low conflict group were also more likely than those who reported high levels of conflict to say that they believed in traditional, life-long marriage.

“People who believe marriage should last forever may also believe that fighting is just not worth it. They may be more likely to just let disagreements go,” Kamp Dush said.
The lower conflict couples who had equal decision making tended to fall into a validator marriage category, who report high and middle levels of happiness and no more than middle levels of conflict.

“The validator marriages are often seen as positive because couples are engaged with each other and are happy. We found that in these marriages, each partner shared in decision making and in housework,” Kamp Dush said.

About 20 percent of those surveyed were in high conflict marriages with middle levels of happiness. The remaining participants were in hostile marriages, and were most likely to divorce. Kamp Dush suggested validator marriages may be the healthiest for couples.

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