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Rachel Valltos and Evan Sapperstein are dentists who share an office and a life together. In nine years of marriage, they have built not just a successful dental practice, but also, a family.
Rachel and Evan laugh about the last time they argued at their Washington-area home. He wanted her attention. So did one of their three children. Evan yelled at the child.
Rachel told Evan that he was the one acting like a baby. That only brought more yelling, which Rachel ignored.
“In the heat of the argument, I usually will back away because I want to avoid confrontation, you know, in front of the children. But I always have plans to go back and have a discussion about it later.”
Rachel and Evan made peace. But researchers might describe the way she dealt with the argument at first as a withdrawal strategy.
A team at the University of Michigan recently published a study of how married couples fight. They also looked at how different “styles” of arguing might predict the future of a marriage.
The findings appeared in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
The study followed 373 couples over 16 years. 46% of them had divorced by the final year in 2002.
The couples were asked at four different times to report on their most recent conflict. First, they had to agree on which conflict was their most recent.
The husbands and wives each had to choose from a list of behaviors to describe the strategies they used. The list included behaviors like calm discussion, listening and trying hard to find out the other person’s feelings.
The list also included behaviors like yelling, using insults, walking away or not communicating – in other words, the silent treatment.
Assistant professor Kira Birditt led the study.
“The husbands were more likely to use the constructive strategies like discussing the problem, finding solutions, and wives were more likely to use those destructive or withdrawal strategies.”
But Professor Birditt says the study found that over time, wives became less destructive in the way they argued. Husbands stayed the same.
“It looked like wives got better at dealing with conflict over time using the fewer destructive and withdrawal strategies.”
She says the researchers also found that different combinations of strategies may help predict whether a couple will stay together. The chances decrease if only one partner uses constructive strategies.
“Try as you might to use the constructive strategy, you have to have both partners using that strategy.”
So now back to Evan and Rachel. We spoke with Dr. Sapperstein just after he finished a long, difficult root canal on a patient. If he had to choose between another operation like that or a fight with his wife?
“Oh, definitely, the root canal.”