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Argument 'Style' Can Hurt a Marriage

Study Shows Disengaging During an Argument Can Lead to Divorce

By Katrina Woznicki
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 30, 2010 -- Spouses who tune out during an argument can hurt their marriage and increase the risk for divorce, a study shows.

University of Michigan researchers found that a particularly risky pattern for marriages is when one spouse deals with conflict constructively and the other withdraws from the conflict.

Dealing constructively with a conflict includes behavior such as calmly discussing the problem and actively listening. Withdrawal from the conflict includes disengaging by leaving the situation or keeping quiet.

Husbands reported more constructive and less destructive behaviors than wives. Researchers found that wives' destructive and withdrawal behaviors declined over time, while husbands' behaviors remained unchanged. African-American couples reported more withdrawal than white couples.

Withdrawal "seems to have a damaging effect on the longevity of marriage," says University of Michigan researcher and study researcher Kira Birditt, PhD, in a news release. "Spouses who deal with conflicts constructively may view their partners' habit of withdrawing as a lack of investment in the relationship rather than an attempt to cool down."

The observation about withdrawal is based on the Early Years of Marriage Study, funded by the National Institute of Aging and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It is an ongoing study evaluating the marriages of 373 couples interviewed four times over a 16-year period, beginning during the first year of marriage.

Birditt and her team found that 29% of husbands and 21% of wives reported having no conflicts at all in the first year of their marriage, which was 1986. Nearly half or 46% of the couples had divorced by year 16 of the study -- 2002.

Whether or not couples reported any conflict during the first year of marriage did not affect whether they had divorced by the 16th year.

Not surprisingly, spouses who used constructive strategies had lower divorce rates, Birditt found.

The findings are published in the October issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family.

According to the CDC, the marriage rate is 7.1 per 1,000 and the divorce rate is 3.5 per 1,000, indicating that about half of all marriages end in divorce.

SOURCES: News release, University of Michigan.Birditt, K. Journal of Marriage and Family, October 2010.CDC web site.

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