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Why Conflict Resolution Is Easy for Some Couples

How well couples move on after an argument is closely tied to how securely attached one or both partners were to their caregivers as an infant, a study suggests.

Feb. 24, 2011 -- How well couples move on after an argument is closely tied to how securely attached one or both partners were to their caregivers as an infant, a study suggests.

The study is published in the online edition of Psychological Science.

To reach their conclusions, researchers at the University of Minnesota, led by PhD student Jessica E. Salvatore of the university’s Institute of Child Development, drew upon participants in an ongoing, long-term study that had followed them since their birth in the mid-1970s. When they were in their 20s, they and their partners were brought into the lab.

There, each of the 73 heterosexual couples spent about 10 minutes discussing a topic that they disagreed on. They then talked for four minutes as a “cool-down” task on a different topic, one they both saw eye to eye on. In evaluating the videotaped sessions, the researchers found that some of the couples put the dispute behind them without effort, while other couples couldn’t get past the conflict.

The researchers then compared what they had observed with data collected when the study participants were 12 months and 18 months old. They found that the more strongly attached the participants were as babies to their parents or caregivers, the more adept they were at resolving conflicts in their adult relationships.

Resolving Conflicts: One Partner Leads the Way

The researchers also found that all was not lost for those who had had less secure attachments in their infancy. As long as they were with a partner who could navigate the way out of a conflict, their relationship stood a good chance of lasting for a long time.

"We found that people who were insecurely attached as infants but whose adult romantic partners recover well from conflict are likely to stay together,” Salvatore says in a news release. “If one person can lead this process of recovering from conflict, it may buffer the other person and the relationship.”

That, says Salvatore, was the study’s most exciting finding.

“This research,” she writes in the study, “provides some of the first prospective evidence suggesting that individuals may be able to compensate for the vulnerabilities that their romantic partners carry with them from earlier in their development.”

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