Researchers have isolated exactly how to make conflict in relationships healthy

There’s no success without effective disagreement.
There’s no success without effective disagreement.
Image: AP/Invision/Matt Sayles
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Conflicts in a relationship are inevitable, and if handled poorly (by withdrawing emotionally, blaming your partner, or dredging up that thing from that time with your mother) they can damage it.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have identified an important factor that keeps arguments from turning toxic. They’ve found that a conflict doesn’t make people feel bad about the relationship if they believe their partner understands their point of view.

In other words, a fight with someone who at least gets what you’re saying and why—even if they disagree—is a much healthier fight.

“Feeling understood, regardless of whether it’s grounded in reality, can be enormously good for general well being,” said Serena Chen, professor of psychology and the co-author of the study (pdf), which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Conveying that you understand but don’t agree can go a long way. We know this, but we don’t often do it. In the heat of the moment, it’s very hard to do that. But one stands to benefit oneself if you can convey to your partner that you understand.”

In one of several experiments the researchers conducted, 85 people in a relationship of at least six months kept a daily journal rating quarrels the couple had, whether they felt understood, and how happy the subject was with the relationship. Unsurprisingly, relationship satisfaction dipped on days with fights—but only those where the partner was perceived to not understand the subject’s point of view.

In another, subjects were asked to write about an argument they’d had with a partner, whether they felt understood, and why that understanding (or lack thereof) made a difference. Again, the people who felt empathized were much more positive.

“If we are arguing and he takes the time to see my side it makes me feel like . . . we have a good relationship with strong communication,” one subject wrote.

“When he doesn’t understand me, we are in two different places, and that is not good for the relationship,” wrote another.

Marriage therapists often ask clients to repeat back what they believe their partner has just told them as an exercise in listening and empathy. This research indicates that it’s as important to be able to show that you’re listening as it is to actually listen.

“Maybe the skill you need to get good at is convincing your partner, ‘hey, I really do get you,’” Chen said.