How to make any fight in your relationship work in your favour cover image

How to make any fight in your relationship work in your favour

Dorian Minors • March 28, 2014

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

In the 1980's, Caryl Rusbult came up with a pretty definitive model to describe how we respond to conflict. Better still, she (and her colleagues) carried out studies to test the results of these response types. Here, we're going to show you how people respond to conflict, what the best method is and why.

This image is not endorsed by Caryl Rusbult, it's just a pictoral representation drawn by me. This image is not endorsed by Caryl Rusbult, it's just a pictoral representation drawn by me.

Basically, our response will fall somewhere on this grid. We'll either be more active or passive, more constructive or destructive. Lets talk about the different outcomes:

If your response is:

Active and Destructive (top left) - you are performing an 'exit' response. This isn't just leaving. This is attacking as well. You’ve decided that attacking is more important than the relationship because you're acting in a way that could end it.

Active and Constructive (top right) - you are performing a 'voice' response. You might be expressing anger or hurt, but it's a sign that you care. You're using it, moving through it and engaging with your partner that demonstrates you want to continue with the relationship.

Passive and Constructive (bottom right) - you're performing a 'loyalty' response. You're basically just waiting for it to blow over. Maybe your buddy/partner is under some kind of stress and you're just waiting for that to end so you can get back on the horse. You're being positive even though things aren't great.

Passive and Destructive (bottom left) - this is a 'neglect' response. You're assuming the relationship is going to end, so you just let it be. You don't try to resolve it and ignore any attempts to fix anything. You've stopped caring.

“The best kind of response is a mix of voice and loyalty - mixing passive and active behaviours in a constructive way.”

So what's the best kind of response? Well it's a mix of voice and loyalty. Both active and passive constructive behaviours are ideal. It's called accommodation (not to be confused with the Piagetian kind of accommodation). Now, don't get carried away with the term, because accommodation isn't just about giving in, sacrificing and placating your partner. No, it's about actively stopping yourself from responding destructively to your partner's nonsense. You stop your attack in it's tracks and bite your tongue. This is the loyalty response here. The you 'transform' the motivation to attack into a motivation to forgive. Basically, you say 'I may not like it, I may not believe you but I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt for us'. That's the voice response. But when it's only loyalty, if we're only letting it wash over us, sometimes we go too far and our partners can take advantage of this (read: abuse). If you have to pick one, choose voice, because research shows that loyalty doesn't necessarily predict relationship happiness all by itself. Your partner never knows what's wrong and you start to lose self-esteem.

Accommodation is the best for relationship happiness, then voice. In fact, research done by Gross & John in 2003 shows that putting a positive spin on things ('this isn't the end of the world' kind of thinking) as much more adaptive than just suppressing your emotions.

You can tell, these guys are amazing at fighting with each other. Photo courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt (Flickr) You can tell, these guys are amazing at fighting with each other. Photo courtesy of D. Sharon Pruitt (Flickr)

Now, you're more likely to respond with accommodation if you're usually a happy pair of friends, siblings or lovers. Also, if you think that your relationship is better than the alternatives (e.g. replacing that person with someone else). If our investment is high (for example, if we have more interconnections, the thing that's more important than love), or if the relationship is very central to our lives, we're also more likely. And finally the more committed we are (i.e. marriage), and the amount of support we receive from those around us contribute to this response.

So what about exit and neglect? Well in 2000, H. Roberts had a look at about 100 couples over three years to see what sort of effect these conflict management tactics had. He (unsurprisingly) found that both have a negative impact on relationship satisfaction. He also figured out that there are three types of neglect:

So, whether it's your personal life, work life or family the key is to engage with the problems your are experiencing. But, also to know when to hold back. Too much of either just lines you up for the big 'goodbye'

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.