Couples can have big fights, frequent conflict, and even bicker all the time and still have healthy, fulfilling, and lasting relationships. How so? Recent research suggests that one factor in particular plays an important role in protecting a couple from the negative effects of relationship conflict: How well you think your partner “gets” you.
We know intuitively that conflict can damage a relationship and there’s a boatload of research to confirm it. But is all conflict detrimental? And why do some relationships with frequent conflict nevertheless weather the storms, survive — and even thrive?
University of California Berkeley researchers Amie Gordon and Serena Chen were interested in these very questions. Following a series of seven studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers concluded,
One factor in particular seems to influence how detrimental conflict is to the relationship: Whether or not you feel your thoughts, feelings, and point of view are understood by your partner.
In other words, if you feel your partner “gets” you, not only can the two of you recover better from the conflict, but you’re also more likely to view it as a healthy part of a normal relationship. Even if you don’t resolve the conflict.
But wait, there’s more.
When study participants felt understood by their partner, conflict wasn’t only less damaging to the relationship — it was also beneficial to the relationship.
Perceived understanding is the feeling that a partner is able to take your perspective and “get” your thoughts, feelings, and point of view, even if they don’t agree with you. It’s this perceived understanding that is key to buffering a relationship against the downside of conflict.
Said Gordon and Chen,
We found that participants were no less satisfied with their relationships after recalling or experiencing a conflict in which they felt understood compared to if they had had no conflict at all. In fact, when…couples engaged in a conflict conversation, those who felt more understood were even more satisfied after the conflict than when they first arrived in the laboratory…Relationships characterized by more frequent and severe conflict were not any less satisfying than relationships characterized by little conflict among people who felt more understood by their partners.
And feeling understood during conflict also appears to strengthen the relationship because it signals that your partner is invested:
When partners are able to express their point of view and feel heard and cared about by their partners, at worst these conflicts do not hurt the relationship and, perhaps, at best, they offer an opportunity for couples to build intimacy.
The research did not examine aggressive, physical conflict, nor did it examine “distressed couples,” those generally unhappy in their relationship overall (fights aside). So we can’t assume the findings would hold true in those circumstances. The researchers did suggest, however, that perceived understanding might be as beneficial, and perhaps even more so, for buffering relationship decline for distressed couples as it is for satisfied couples.
So how can you use this research to protect your own relationship from the damage caused by conflict?
This research makes a strong case that there’s high value in trying to understand your partner — and making sure you convey that understanding. Here are some ways to capitalize on the research to mitigate the impact of relationship conflict at home:
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