Couples can have big fights, frequent conflict, and even bicker all the time and still have healthy, fulfilling, and lasting relationships. How so? Recent research suggests that one factor in particular plays an important role in protecting a couple from the negative effects of relationship conflict: How well you think your partner “gets” you.
We know intuitively that conflict can damage a relationship and there’s a boatload of research to confirm it. But is all conflict detrimental? And why do some relationships with frequent conflict nevertheless weather the storms, survive — and even thrive?
University of California Berkeley researchers Amie Gordon and Serena Chen were interested in these very questions. Following a series of seven studies reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers concluded,
In other words, if you feel your partner “gets” you, not only can the two of you recover better from the conflict, but you’re also more likely to view it as a healthy part of a normal relationship. Even if you don’t resolve the conflict.
But wait, there’s more.
The power of perceived understanding
Perceived understanding is the feeling that a partner is able to take your perspective and “get” your thoughts, feelings, and point of view, even if they don’t agree with you. It’s this perceived understanding that is key to buffering a relationship against the downside of conflict.
Said Gordon and Chen,
We found that participants were no less satisfied with their relationships after recalling or experiencing a conflict in which they felt understood compared to if they had had no conflict at all. In fact, when…couples engaged in a conflict conversation, those who felt more understood were even more satisfied after the conflict than when they first arrived in the laboratory…Relationships characterized by more frequent and severe conflict were not any less satisfying than relationships characterized by little conflict among people who felt more understood by their partners.
And feeling understood during conflict also appears to strengthen the relationship because it signals that your partner is invested:
When partners are able to express their point of view and feel heard and cared about by their partners, at worst these conflicts do not hurt the relationship and, perhaps, at best, they offer an opportunity for couples to build intimacy.
The research did not examine aggressive, physical conflict, nor did it examine “distressed couples,” those generally unhappy in their relationship overall (fights aside). So we can’t assume the findings would hold true in those circumstances. The researchers did suggest, however, that perceived understanding might be as beneficial, and perhaps even more so, for buffering relationship decline for distressed couples as it is for satisfied couples.
So how can you use this research to protect your own relationship from the damage caused by conflict?
How to use this
This research makes a strong case that there’s high value in trying to understand your partner — and making sure you convey that understanding. Here are some ways to capitalize on the research to mitigate the impact of relationship conflict at home:
- Don’t confuse acknowledgement with agreement. I sometimes see clients stubbornly refusing to acknowledge a partner’s feelings or point of view because they fear it’ll show weakness or convey they’ve given in. Acknowledging is not the same as agreeing and this study makes it clear that acknowledging your partner’s feelings, thoughts, and point of view matters a great deal.
- Rethink “having the last word.” When you open your mouth to have the last word, remember that the kind of last word you have may make the difference between helping and hurting your relationship. If you’ve got to have the last word, try to make it one that conveys you “get” your partner.
- Check out your understanding. Understanding isn’t just something you do in your head or your heart — it’s also something you do with your words. How much do you think you accurately understand what your partner is thinking and feeling? Say it to them, in your own words, out loud. If you got it right, oh joy! If you got it wrong, the fact that you tried is exactly the kind of act that builds stronger connection and intimacy, as the research suggests. Find out what you missed and keep trying until you get it right. And if you never get it right? The researchers dubbed it perceived understanding for a reason.
- Cut them some slack when they’re trying. If you’ve sold yourself on the story that your partner never understands you or never tries hard enough, you set them up for failure even when they’re really trying. Only you can break out of your own stuck story, your own reflexive loop, and your usual response pattern. It’s worth the effort.