Don’t Get Angry. Get Empathetic.

Study examines how couples in happier relationships resolve arguments

This Valentine’s Day, consider this: in happier relationships, when one partner becomes angry, the other is more likely to think about how to understand his or her partner or resolve the issue, said Anita L. Vangelisti, professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.


Valentine's Day, Anita Vangelisti


“In conflict, there appears to be more of a balance in happier couples – when one person is angry, the other backs off,” said Vangelisti. “This is in contrast to what one might think of as a normal reaction – being angry back.”

According to the study, “Couples’ Online Cognitions during Conflict: Links between What Partners Think and their Relational Satisfaction,” published in the March 2013 edition of Communication Monographs, an individual’s thoughts exhibited while in a spat reflects their own happiness in the relationship and can affect how satisfied their partner feels. The study was co-authored by Ashley V. Middleton, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois, and Diana S. Ebersole, lecturer in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Pennsylvania State University.

Anita Vangelisti

          Professor Anita Vangelisti

“We tend to think couples that are on the same page as one another are healthier but these findings suggest that’s not always the case,” said Vangelisti. “When there are differences in thought when dealing with conflict – like when one person is showing their emotion while the other person is not – can be complimentary and help a couple work things out in a more positive direction. Being quiet, listening, validating and acknowledging a partner’s feelings while the other vents is often what’s needed.”

The research consisted of selecting 71 young, unmarried heterosexual couples in Texas who had been involved an average of three years. To begin the study, topics of disagreement were gleaned from questionnaires and relationship satisfaction surveys couples had previously completed. Typical issues of conflict included time spent together, money, substance abuse, past romantic relationships, and friends and family who were at odds concerning the relationship.

To create moments of conflict, researchers placed each person in a couple in separate rooms and had them chat online to each other concerning a contentious subject for 10 minutes, asking the pair to negotiate a solution.

While this was happening, researchers encouraged individuals to speak openly about their thoughts on the conflict occurring in real-time and tape-recorded the sessions for further analysis.

As predicted, open communication during a conflict proved helpful. Findings showed that instances when a person thinks about making excuses or denying a part in a conflict, their partners felt shut out,  dismissed, or “stonewalled.” Other negative attributes included thoughts about how repetitive divisive subjects sounded, the amounts of power each person carried in the relationship, and a focus on anger and frustration occurring in similar frequency to their partner.  

“One thing worth emphasizing is that there is a big difference between being quiet and listening to one’s partner and ‘stonewalling’ them,” said Vangelisti.

Vangelisti found that these positive or negative thoughts affect relationship satisfaction but that some findings may be hindered because computer-facilitated discussion lacks some of the intimacies of face-to-face interaction such as tone, eye contact, or body language.

Valentine's Day, Candy

Pope Gelasius I recast this pagan festival as a Christian
feast day circa 496, declaring February 14 to be Saint
Valentine's Day. 

“It’s interesting to note that in our data, men had a lot of thoughts concerning relationship issues while the conflict was occurring,” said Vangelisti. “This is different from the conventional thinking that women analyze relationships significantly more than men.”

Another interesting caveat challenging socially accepted differences between women’s and men’s cognitions was that the current study found only one sex-based difference – women in the study were more likely than men to associate blame to their partner.

“There is research supporting that women are a little more negative during conflicts,” said Vangelisti. “These are all important things for couples and spouses to consider when communicating.”

For a link to the whole study, visit The University of Texas Libraries website.

Marc Speir
Senior Content Producer