People who are unhappy in their romantic relationship spend more time during a disagreement thinking about how angry and frustrated they are, but happy couples coordinate their thoughts so that when one partner has many emotional thoughts, the other has few, according to a new study recently published online in the National Communication Association's journal, Communication Monographs.
"Among happy couples, when one partner is thinking a lot about disagreement or anger, the other instead may be thinking about how to understand his or her partner or how to resolve the conflict," said lead investigator Anita Vangelisti, Ph.D., professor of communication at the University of Texas at Austin.
The findings, Vangelisti said, show that people's thoughts during a conflict situation reflect and shape their own relationship satisfaction and can even affect how happy their partner is.
Vangelisti and her colleagues studied 71 young unmarried heterosexual couples in Texas, who had been together an average of three years. Each person was encouraged to privately express his or her thoughts aloud to a researcher while in a separate room from the other partner and while communicating about a topic of conflict with the partner via a computer chat program. The chat program showed the person's typed messages in one section and the partner's replies and messages in another section, but did not display the person's vocalized thoughts, which were tape recorded.
In most cases, the couples discussed a topic of disagreement that both participants had listed in a questionnaire about conflict issues. Before the study, they also completed a questionnaire about their relationship satisfaction. Topics of conflict included amount of time spent together, money, past dating relationships, alcohol use, and friends and relatives who disapproved of their relationship. The researchers told the couples they had 10 minutes to discuss the topic and come to a resolution. A researcher sat behind the participant in each room and reminded that study subject to voice his or her thoughts throughout the interaction.
The researchers found that during a discussion involving conflict with a romantic partner, when one person thinks about making excuses or denying his or her role in the conflict, the other partner was likelier to be unhappy in the relationship than those whose partner did not "stonewall."
People in unhappy relationships were more likely to be inflexible in their thinking and more interested in changing the subject of discussion. They also thought more about how repetitive the discussion felt. When both people in the relationship were dissatisfied, they were more likely to think about the power they had or their partner had in the relationship. They also were more likely to focus their thoughts on disagreement or emotions, such as anger and frustration, at the same time as their partner.
"We don't have data on what happens when partners change their thoughts, but our findings certainly do suggest that thinking about how angry and frustrated you are -- or thinking about how much power is being wielded during a conflict -- is not beneficial for the relationship," Vangelisti said.
She speculated that people's thoughts might affect their partner's relationship satisfaction because they often voice their thoughts to their partner or, in a real-life setting, they send nonverbal messages.
Unlike other studies, which found differences between men's and women's thoughts during disagreement, the current study found only one statistically significant sex-based difference in thoughts: women were more likely than men to blame their partner.
"The results … raise questions about widely accepted differences between women's and men's cognitions," the authors wrote.
The investigators cautioned, however, that computer-aided interactions are not the same as face-to-face conversations because they do not give participants access to each other's expressions or tone of voice. Participants' thoughts may therefore differ from those they might have during a face-to-face conflict, they concluded.
The article, "Couples' Online Cognitions during Conflict: Links between What Partners Think and their Relational Satisfaction," is currently online in Communication Monographs.
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