Good news if you’re in a long-term relationship: Those annoying arguments about whose turn it is to clean the bathroom or who spent too much on new shoes will likely diminish over time, but not because you’ve discovered the secret to marital bliss. According to a study published in the July 2013 issue of Journal of Marriage and Family, relationships often evolve to avoiding or ignoring conflict—and that can be a good or bad. We’ll explain.
Sarah Holley, Ph.D., San Francisco State University assistant professor of psychology, interviewed 127 long-term married couples several times over 13 years. During that time, she and her colleagues noted how they communicated about everyday conflicts from housework to finances.
What the researchers found was something many couples can relate to: the classic demand-withdraw pattern increased over time. This pattern typically happens when one person blames or pressures a partner to engage (“Why don’t you ever take out the garbage?”), while the other tries to simply avoid the discussion (“Honey, have you seen my keys?”).
“Over time, both husbands and wives showed a significant increase in their avoidance behaviors,” Holley explains, “meaning that both spouses were increasingly more likely to avoid conflict discussions in later life stages by doing things like diverting attention from the topic or changing the subject altogether.”
This “avoidance trend” doesn’t just apply to married couples either.
Holley says she previously compared demand-withdraw behaviors in gay and lesbian couples in committed relationships (before any states allowed them to marry) to heterosexual married couples and noted similar patterns.
“I found no differences in the amount of demand-withdraw behaviors any of these groups demonstrated during conflict discussions,” she says. “Therefore, I don’t think the findings of this study are unique to married couples. I would expect that any long-term committed couples would be likely to show a similar pattern of change as they move into later life stages.”
Married or not, conflict avoidance almost always stems from a lack of communication know-how, according to Jane Greer, Ph.D., relationship expert and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “Couples fall into this pattern because they lack the tools and verbal skills they need in order to successfully negotiate conflict resolution,” she says.