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Age Affects How Couples Argue

Update Date: Jul 01, 2013 06:27 PM EDT

A new study reveals that age affects how married couples handle conflict.  Researchers revealed that older people handle disagreements more often by changing the subject.

Researchers at the San Francisco State University followed 127 middle-aged and older long-term married couples across 13 years, checking in to see how they communicated about conflicts from housework to bills.  Researchers videotaped the couples' 15-minute discussions and looked for the types of communication they used when talking about disagreements.

Researchers wanted to see if the couples might change in their use of a common and destructive type of communication, the demand-withdraw pattern, as they aged.

Holley explains that in the demand-withdraw pattern, one person in a relationship blames or pressures their partner for a change, while the partner tries to avoid discussion of the problem or passively withdraws from the interaction.

Researchers found that while most aspects of demand-withdraw communication remained steady over time, both husbands and wives "increased their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict," Holley said in a news release. Researchers explain that when faced with an area of disagreement, both spouses were more likely to do things like change the subject or divert attention from the conflict.

Avoidance is generally thought to be damaging to relationships as it gets in the way of conflict resolution.  While this is true for younger couples, who may be grappling with newer issues, avoidance fort older couples, who have had decades to voice their disagreements, may be a way to move the conversation away from "toxic" areas and toward more neutral or pleasant topics.

"This is in line with age-related shifts in socioemotional goals," Holley said, "wherein individuals tend toward less conflict and greater goal disengagement in later life stages."

The latest findings support previous findings the revealed that older people place less importance on arguments and seek more positive experiences.  Researchers say this may be because they are making the most out of their remaining years.

However, many psychologists believe that the demand-withdraw pattern, with its "self-perpetuating and polarizing nature," can be especially destructive for couples. For example, if a husband withdraws in response to his wife's demands to do the dishes, that withdrawal can lead to an escalation in the wife's demands, which in turn may fuel the husband's tendency to withdraw from the argument, and so on.

"This can lead to a polarization between the two partners which can be very difficult to resolve and can take a major toll on relationship satisfaction," Holley said.

Holley said she has seen this type of communication in all kinds of couples. When she compared homosexual and heterosexual couples in a 2010 study, she found "strong support for the idea that the partner who desires more change ... will be much more likely to occupy the demanding role, whereas the partner who desires less change -- and therefore may benefit from maintaining the status quo -- will be more likely to occupy the withdrawing role."

The findings are published in the Journal of Marriage and Family

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