You: “I’m sorry I was late picking you up today…”
Your partner responds: “That’s okay; it happens…”
Your partner thinks: “But it always seems to happen to YOU!”
Wouldn’t it be great to know what your partner was thinking about during a disagreement? Having a sense of his or her thoughts during a conflict could provide an important window into how your partner feels about you and might indicate how satisfied (or dissatisfied) your partner is with the relationship overall. Similarly, what your partner thinks about during a conflict might be associated with your satisfaction as well. For example, you might pick up on their annoyance with your tardiness, which might make you annoyed with them!
Relationship researchers would also love to “get inside your head” during an argument. But if you are in the midst of resolving a conflict by talking with your partner, how would you simultaneously describe what you’re thinking about? Researchers have devised a surprisingly elegant solution to this problem. In recent research,1 participants reported their thoughts out loud while having an online text-based chat with their partners. By having couples “think aloud” during a chat, the research team was able to tap the moment-by-moment thoughts couples have in the heat of battle, so to speak.
Nearly 70 couples participated in the study, which began with each partner listing things about which they frequently disagree (for example, how they spend money or interact with their exes). Couple members were in different rooms and asked to discuss one of these areas of disagreement with each other by typing on a computer (i.e., “chatting”). As participants engaged in this online conflict, they were asked to verbalize their thoughts about the interaction, which were recorded and coded later for their tone and content. After completing the ten-minute conflict discussion, partners reported on their relationship satisfaction.
Partners who had more thoughts related to anger, frustration, and dominance reported lower relationship satisfaction. Similarly, those who shifted topics more often (i.e., avoiding the issue at hand) and were inflexible in how they resolved conflict were also less satisfied. In addition, partners of those who had more angry and frustrated thoughts and who engaged in “stonewalling” (refusing to communicate or cooperate) were less satisfied. In short, negative and destructive thoughts during conflict were related to each individual’s dissatisfaction and also to their partner’s dissatisfaction with their relationship. This is noteworthy, because previously researchers had to “guess” what was going in people’s heads during conflict; this technique allows us to assess those thoughts in “real time” for the first time.
So the next time you find yourself in a disagreement with your partner, work on reframing your thoughts to less negative. This shift in thinking could benefit both you and your partner’s relationship satisfaction!
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1Vangelisti, A. L., Middleton, A. V., & Ebersole, D. S. (2013). Couples’ online cognitions during conflict: Links between what partners think and their relational satisfaction. Communication Monographs, 80, 125-149.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.