They are a staple of television shows, movies and New Yorker cartoons: the nagging wife and the emotionally withdrawn husband.
Psychologists call it demand-withdraw communication, and it occurs when one partner in a relationship tries to talk to, criticize, blame or pressure his or her better half. At the same time, the other partner responds by trying to avoid the conversation, or by becoming silent and distant.
Nagging and stonewalling are seen as being among the most damaging behaviors for married couples, psychologists say. However, a new study published Monday in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that the tendency to avoid conflict by changing the subject to more pleasant matters increases as couples age and might actually be an adaptive strategy that allows marriages to survive for decades.
The study followed 127 middle-age or older married couples in the San Francisco Bay area who were interviewed three times over a period of 13 years. The couples were also monitored by hidden camera as they discussed a controversial topic. Their behavior was then analyzed for demand-withdrawal behavior.
When comparing couples who were ages 40 to 50 (midlife) with couples who were 60 or older (later life), some patterns became clear, according to lead study author Sarah Holley, a psychology professor at San Francisco State University.
While the tendency for either partner to use pressure, blame or withdrawal remained stable over time, avoidance behavior increased for husbands and wives over time.
As an example of avoidance behavior, Holley and colleagues wrote that an older spouse might say "We've discussed this a million times; let's just agree to disagree. Now what do you want to do for dinner?"
"For younger couples, it makes sense that avoidance behaviors may be particularly problematic: Issues are newer, and the need to seek solutions may be more pressing due to the high levels of role strain," the authors wrote. "For long-term married spouses in later stages of life, however, avoidance behaviors might shift from being maladaptive to being a neutral or even adaptive strategy."
The study offered a unique view into the communication processes of couples "who survived" through earlier years of marriage, authors wrote.
However, it also had its limitations.
The study sample was "overrepresented by spouses who are Caucasian, educated and of relatively high socioeconomic status," the authors wrote. "Findings from these couples might not generalize to other ethnic and socioeconomic groups."
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