Kiss and make up: How to recover after an argument
Based on the journal article ‘Recovery from conflict and revival of intimacy in cohabiting couples’
I have a partner and, like any couple, we sometimes argue. But I comfort myself with the knowledge that all couples argue about something: who left the tap running; whether to take that job that means you’ll be away for work three days a week; or who left that upturned plug in the middle of the room that almost punctured the sole of my foot!
No matter how good we are at communicating, all of us are bound to disagree with our partners from time to time. In fact, it’s essential that we do. Acknowledging and discussing the problems we have with our partners and our relationships is an important step in resolving them. But how do partners recover after conflict? If we don’t know how to recover from these arguments, our relationships with our partners can suffer.
A new journal article out last month looked at how cohabiting couples – in the US – recovered from arguments and rebuilt their intimate connections with their partners. The study looked at their moods and intimacy levels on days after conflict happened. First, the research found that, after conflict, partners experienced bad moods and less intimacy and were temporarily less satisfied with their relationship.
No surprises there.
BUT, the bit that makes this important is that the researchers also think that if partners don’t know how to recover from an argument, and these issues spill over into the following days, they are likely to be less satisfied in their relationship. And, if the struggle to recover keeps rearing its ugly head every time a disagreement happens, it might play a part in breaking couple relationships down. Another potential problem is that if a couple don’t know how to recover from an argument reasonably quickly, they’re probably less likely to talk about their problems because they worry that doing so may have lingering negative effects.
While everyone feels bad after an argument with their partner, the researchers found that how secure partners felt in their relationships played an important part in how they reacted. Those who were less secure in their relationships (i.e. women who tended to worry that their relationship might end, and men who feared being let down by their partner) had fewer positive emotions after an argument than those who felt secure in their relationships.
On the other hand, even though those who were secure in their relationships still reported negative emotions after conflict (e.g., being upset or distressed), they managed to maintain a positive perspective on their overall relationship even with these day-to-day upsets. Interestingly, the partners of people who were secure in their relationships also recovered from conflict better than others. This might be because their partners’ optimism ‘rubs off’ onto them.
The researchers also found something a little more practical – more intimacy after a disagreement was associated with faster recovery from conflict. So, when a partner felt appreciated, and that there was mutual understanding after an argument, this seemed to soften the blow and improve partners’ moods. However, if partners didn’t express any appreciation for their partner and were unable to let go of their anger, this led to lingering negativity surrounding the relationship.
At OnePlusOne, we already know that what partners say and do during disagreements is really important for the stability of a relationship. In fact, we know this so well that we have developed a great course called How to argue better to help couples improve the way they communicate. When couples ‘argue better’ there is less recovery needed, but we all still need to recover nevertheless, and this study gives us helpful info on how we might bounce back from arguments.
Written by Debbie Braybrook, Researcher at OnePlusOne
 Prager, Karen J., Forouz Shirvani, Jesse Poucher, Gustavo Cavallin, Michael Truong, and Jennifer J. Garcia. (2015) Recovery from Conflict and Revival of Intimacy in Cohabiting Couples. Personal Relationships 22(2), 308–334. doi:10.1111/pere.12082.