Couples who resolve conflicts constructively tend to have higher levels of relationship satisfaction than couples who engage in heated and unproductive conflicts. In adult relationships, learning how to fight fairly and argue respectively are important skills that can affect each partner’s level of commitment and satisfaction within the relationship. A large body of research has shown that effective and respectful communication and recovery from conflict can improve a couple’s chances of thriving.
Couples with poor conflict resolution skills are at increased risk for divorce or separation. But how does this same skill affect adolescent relationships? During adolescence, teens begin to experiment with romantic relationships. They learn how to trust another person and share their emotions, time, and physical self with that person. They also learn how to resolve conflicts. Therefore, it could be assumed that behaviors demonstrated in these budding relationships could be as indicative of relationship success as behaviors of more mature relationships.
To test this theory, Thao Ha of the Department of Developmental Psychopathology at Radboud University in the Netherlands recently led a study that examined how adolescent romantic partners behaved during conflicts, and how this affected the future of their relationships. Ha analyzed self-reports and observer reports from 80 teenage couples over a four year period, looking specifically at the dynamics that existed during conflicts and the emotional states that resulted from those conflicts. The findings revealed that teenage couples with adaptive conflict skills had no better chance of staying together than those without. This result was unexpected and in contrast to research on adult relationships.
There are several possible explanations for these findings. First, in middle adolescence, teens are just beginning to discover romantic love. Adolescent couples do not measure relationship satisfaction in the same way that mature couples do. Rather than focusing on long-term commitment and shared goals, younger couples may be more concerned with peer acceptance and intimate encounters.
“Over time, as the relationship goals change to support long-term commitments, conflict resolution and recovery might be more significant in defining relationship satisfaction and would therefore relate to breakups,” said Ha. Also, many young teenagers are still discovering their own sexual and romantic identities, and have no motivation to pursue or maintain long-term commitments.
Although these results do not clearly demonstrate what leads to break-ups in adolescent relationships, further work should explore this topic as many teens experience significant negative outcomes, including depression and anxiety, when a romantic relationship ends.
Ha, T., Overbeek, G., Lichtwarck-Aschoff, A., Engels, R.C.M.E. (2013). Do conflict resolution and recovery predict the survival of adolescents’ romantic relationships? PLoS ONE 8(4): e61871. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061871
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