By Emily Reynolds
“Don’t go to bed because of an argument” is a saying we’ve all heard and probably ignored at some point. As trite as it is, the phrase has a certain truth: if we dissolve arguments instead of letting them simmer, we can feel calmer and happier the next day (and also make it easier to actually fall asleep).
Now, a new study by Dakota D. Witzel and Robert S. Stawski of Oregon State University has investigated the benefits of resolving arguments – and the team finds that resolving isn’t just the emotional stress associated with a major argument is, can be almost completely eliminated, but these person differences can also affect how well we do it. The older we get, the less we argue and the better we can deal with argumentative stress when it occurs.
The data comes from a daily diary study in which more than 2,000 participants completed telephone interviews over eight days at the end of the day. First, positive and negative effects were measured, with participants reporting how much time they had spent feeling certain emotions such as fear and happiness.
Everyday stressors were also recorded, with participants reporting whether or not they had experienced a certain type of negative event in the past twenty-four hours. This included not just arguments, but avoided Arguments (“Did something happen that you could have argued about, but you decided to let it happen to avoid disagreement?”). The team also recorded whether or not these stressors were resolved and how severe the stressor was on a scale of one to three.
Arguments were fairly common: 1,355 arguments were recorded over the eight days (9.10% of all days), of which 95% had a severity greater than one. There were also 2,177 avoided arguments, 86% of which also had a severity level greater than one. In total, 65% of all arguments were resolved, compared to 63% of arguments avoided.
As was to be expected, arguments and avoided arguments had a major influence on mood and affect: the negative affect was higher on days with arguments and the positive affect was lower than on days without. This negative effect was even higher if disagreements were not dealt with, with unresolved arguments being associated with an increased negative effect in the following days. Solved arguments, on the other hand, did not increase the bad mood and also had a “lagging effect” – in other words, solving an argument alleviated the emotional effects for the coming days.
Age played a big role here. Older participants had significantly fewer arguments and avoided arguments at first, and age was also associated with an increased likelihood of arguments resolved – adults over 68 were over 40% more likely than those under 45 to report their arguments in conflict than solved. Elderly people also saw less increases in negative mood after quarrels, even if left unresolved.
What can explain this pattern of results? The first and most obvious answer would be that older people are simply more experienced at resolving arguments. Dealing with conflict in relationships is not always easy and it may take some practice before you get it right: the older you are, the more practice you are likely to have. The team also assumes that older people are simply more motivated to avoid arguments and that they are more emotionally resilient than younger people.
Another notable finding from the study is that if disputes remain unresolved, bad feelings can linger, potentially affecting health and well-being in general. Developing ways in which people can begin to hone their conflict resolution skills could therefore offer wider benefits than just improving relationships.
– Dissolution status and age as moderators for everyday interpersonal stress and stressor-related affects
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles