For long-term couples, a new US study reveals the most common strategy for handling conflicts: just change the subject.
Researchers from San Francisco State University followed 127 middle-aged and older long-term married couples over a period of 13 years, keeping tabs on how they managed conflicts on everything from housework to finances. Researchers videotaped couples having 15-minute discussions, noting their communication style around contentious topics.
To meet the study's criteria, couples had to be between the ages of 40 and 50 and married at least 15 years at the beginning of the study, or between 60 and 70 years old and married for at least 35 years. Age difference between spouses was less than five years.
The researchers found that the couples' use of a common and destructive type of communication -- called the demand-withdraw pattern -- changed as they aged, with both spouses showing a greater tendency to avoid the subject of a conflict as the years ticked by.
How this kind of communication style works may sound familiar: one partner blames or pressures the other for change, while the other partner attempts to avoid talking about the problem or withdraws from the conversation.
Demand-withdraw pattern is generally thought to be damaging to a relationship, especially for younger couples who may be grappling with newer issues. However, older couples have had decades to air their opinions and may find avoidance a way to move the discussions away from "toxic" areas to more neutral subjects, the researchers said.
"This is in line with age-related shifts in socioemotional goals," said head researcher Sarah Holley, an assistant professor of psychology, "wherein individuals tend toward less conflict and greater goal disengagement in later life stages."
Prior research supports that as people get older, they place less importance on arguments and seek more positive experiences, perhaps out of a sense of making the most out of their remaining years, Holley added.
However, she adds that more research needs to be done to determine which has the strongest influence, age or the length of the relationship, or a combination of both. "It may not be an either/or question," she said. "It may be that both age and marital duration play a role in increased avoidance." She hopes in future research to compare older couples in long-term marriages with older newlywed couples.
Holley added that demand-withdraw communication occurs in all kinds of couples, not just the stereotypical nagging wife and avoidant husband. In a separate 2010 study, she compared heterosexual, gay and lesbian couples and found "strong support for the idea that the partner who desires more change ... will be much more likely to occupy the demanding role, whereas the partner who desires less change -- and therefore may benefit from maintaining the status quo -- will be more likely to occupy the withdrawing role."
The new study was published online July 1 in the Journal of Marriage and Family.