It can sometimes be difficult to regain composure after a particularly heated argument with a spouse. But new findings, published in the journal Emotion, show that long-term marital satisfaction depends on wives, not husbands, regulating their own emotions.
Though a husband should probably not suggest that his wife “calm down” during a fight, researchers from the University of California-Berkeley and Northwestern University found that marriages in which wives were able to regain their composure quickly during a dispute were the happiest, both short and long term.
The researchers assessed recorded interactions of over 80 heterosexual couples who were middle-aged or older, and they focused on disagreements and how the couples bounced back from them.
Psychologist Robert Levenson, from UC-Berkeley, has been looking at heterosexual relationships since 1989 and has been following 156 couples in the San Francisco Bay Area this whole time.
Along with this latest study, he and his team recently showed that marital satisfaction is linked to genetic variations.
“When wives discuss problems and suggest solutions, it helps couples deal with conflicts,” he says. “Ironically, this may not work so well for husbands, who wives often criticize for leaping into problem-solving mode too quickly.”
Lian Bloch, lead author of the study and now assistant professor at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, notes that anger and contempt can be “threatening” for most couples.
“But our study suggests that if spouses, especially wives are able to calm themselves, their marriages can continue to thrive,” she adds.
The researchers say that although traditional views of relationships pin the wive’s role as that of caretaker and peacemaker, their study is the first to show that wives are largely in control of keeping the peace over a long period of time.
The team observed that the ability of the wives to control emotions and the link to marital satisfaction was strongest when women used “constructive communication” to calm arguments.
Interestingly, the researchers found that the husbands’ ability to regulate their emotions had “little or no bearing on long-term marital satisfaction.”
Claudia Haase, assistant professor at Northwestern University and co-author of the study, says that age could be a factor in how couples communicate during disagreements:
“The middle-aged and older couples in our study grew up in a world that treated men and women very differently. It will be interesting to see how these gender dynamics play out in younger couples.”
Studies into the subtle dynamics of heterosexual marriages continue in Levenson’s lab at UC-Berkeley, as the couples visit every 5 years to report about marital satisfaction and conflicts.
The researchers continue to code their conversations based on body language, tone of voice, topic of discussion and facial expressions.