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Marital Conflict May Not Ease Over Time

But Researchers Say a 'High-Conflict' Marriage Isn't Always a Sign of an Unhappy Marriage
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Couple fighting

Aug. 18, 2011 -- If you argue a lot now with your spouse, chances are you'll still be arguing the same amount next year, and the next, and the next, new research shows.

While common sense might suggest that people work out their differences over time, and that marital conflict declines, the new study found otherwise. "Marital conflict seemed fairly stable," says Claire Kamp Dush, PhD, professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.

However, that news isn't all bad, she says. "Just because you are 'high conflict' doesn't mean you aren't happy in your marriage."

People in high-conflict marriages have higher odds of divorce, she says. But not all of them split up. In her follow-up of nearly 1,000 couples, about 14% were classified as both "high conflict" and "high happiness."

"We don't know if they enjoy the fighting or if they enjoy their marriages despite the fighting," she tells WebMD.

In the study, she looked at both conflict and happiness. She identified certain qualities that predicted happiness or satisfaction in the marriage.

The study is published in the Journal of Family Issues.

Marital Conflict and Marital Happiness

Kamp Dush and her colleagues used data from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course Survey. It was conducted by Penn State University researchers.

The study began in 1980, when the researchers interviewed 2,033 couples, age 55 and younger, by phone. Many of the same couples were interviewed five more times through 2000. Nearly 1,000 couples were followed for 20 years.

The couples answered questions about how often they had disagreements with their spouses. The options were: never, rarely, sometimes, often, or very often.

Depending on the answers, the marriages were classified as high, middle, or low conflict.

The couples also answered questions about marital quality and happiness. The researchers then put the marriages in the categories of high, medium, or low happiness.

The couples answered other questions, such as their beliefs about marriage and about how they handled household chores and how they made decisions.

Why Some High-Conflict Couples Are Also Happy

Over time, the conflict levels stayed about the same. The high-conflict couples remained high conflict. They were in the minority, however. About 23% were in high-conflict marriages, Kamp Dush tells WebMD.

However, ''14% of the sample were high conflict and high happiness," she says.

She is not sure what to make of high-conflict, high-happiness couples. Why they stay together is somewhat of a mystery. "They might fight a lot, but like the make-up sex," she says.

Most couples, over 60%, had medium conflict. The rest, nearly 17%, had low conflict.

About 38% had high happiness levels, another 41% medium, and the other 21% low happiness levels.  

Certain qualities and beliefs did predict levels of conflict and satisfaction.

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