How Couples Can Make Relationships Work Despite Conflict

How Couples Can Make Relationships Work Despite Conflict

I often wonder why some couples are able to remain together and even thrive despite bickering, conflict, and financial strain while others face a rapidly deteriorating relationship that devolves into contempt and or dissolution. Over the years, I have come up with a number of theories: Some couples are committed to staying together even in the face of arguing. Others stay together but find alternative sources of joy and satisfaction outside of marriage. Yet others spend less and less time at home and turn to work or other activities to distract themselves from the relationship. There are all sorts of ways that couples deal with problematic relationships. Yet there are some couples that have discovered the magic bullet that mitigates the effect of ineffective arguing and to some extent financial strain on relationship satisfaction.

A recent study by Barton and colleagues (2022) helps us discover what some couples do to lessen the negative effect of conflict and financial strain on relationship satisfaction. The sample in this study was comprised of 316 African American opposite-sex couples between the ages of 21 and 75. Similar results have been found in similar research conducted with predominantly White couples. Clearly, research should seek to corroborate these findings among LBGTQ couples.

In Barton and colleagues’ study, couples that felt that their partners had gratitude for them experienced greater relationship satisfaction than those that did not feel similar gratitude. Interestingly, perceived gratitude lessened the negative effects of conflict and financial strain on relationship satisfaction. Of equal importance is the finding that expressing gratitude did not have a similar effect on lessening the negative effects of conflict and financial stress on marital satisfaction. And, over time, perceived gratitude loses its ability to mitigate the effects of financial strain on a relationship.

So, what is it that we as individuals and therapists can learn from Barton and colleagues’ study? The most important result is the importance of expressing gratitude to your partners—gratitude that they can clearly perceive—on a consistent basis. This can range from letting them know that you appreciate specific things that they do and/or how their individual traits affect you in a positive manner. It can take the form of small acts of gratitude like bringing home flowers or taking something off their plate, such as laundry or even the kids. It is always important to let them know that your gratitude is present and that they are not invisible. Everyone wants to be appreciated and as we have learned from this study, it goes a long way toward keeping relationships stable and satisfying. There is a major takeaway for therapists as well. Focusing on how to resolve conflict and financial strain is important but teaching partners to show gratitude for one another may not only improve relationship satisfaction but may also save relationships.

As a therapist, I am also curious about how the effects of gratitude affect friendships, work relationships, and relationships between parents and their children. Have we been remiss about looking at the role that perceived gratitude plays in keeping relationships from becoming unstable and perhaps even aversive? We are very aware of reminding our patients to have gratitude for what is good in their life but it is clearly time to remind them to express this gratitude very clearly to the important others in their lives. After all, connecting well with others is not only necessary but a major source of support and joy in life.

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