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How couples argue as they grow older together is at the heart of a new study in the Journal of Marriage and Family this month.
The 13-year research explored communication methods in middle-aged and older married partners. The results show over time couples “increase their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict” often by changing the subject.
Surveying 127 heterosexual couples beginning in 1999, researchers recorded 15-minute discussions at regular intervals. These were then analyzed to determine which techniques were used to resolve conflicts and avoid them.
One approach that seems to increase over the years, the study found, is the pattern known by psychologists as “demand withdraw.”
This is where a pressuring partner seeks a change within the relationship that is avoided, directly or passively, by the other partner.
“Over time couples ‘increase their tendency to
demonstrate avoidance during conflict.'”
The study was authored by Sarah Holley, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University.
Psychologists tend to view such avoidance as counterproductive to resolving the issue at hand. The study suggests older couples may resort to the pattern more in an effort to make the most of their remaining years.
According to the study, two separate dynamics are at work – the aging individuals and the duration of their relationship.
“It may not be an either-or question,” Holley said. “It may be that both age and marital duration play a role in increased avoidance.”
Holley points out these patterns of greater avoidance in later years also appear in studies of gay and lesbian couples.
“This is in line with age-related shifts in socioemotional goals, wherein individuals tend toward less conflict and greater goal disengagement in later life stages,” she said.