The strength of relationships plays a key role in reactions to arguments.
From a teenager’s snide asides to a plate-hurling fight with a spouse, conflict resonates with people in different ways, leaving some to nurse hurt feelings long after they have outwardly kissed and made up.
Less-than-pleasant social interactions and the way people perceive them have long interested Adam Richards, associate professor of communication studies. He researches social influence, something that happens whenever a person attempts to change the beliefs, attitudes and/or behaviors of someone else.
One area of social influence that Richards has spent years researching is the way people handle conflict, known in communication circles as TCP. “Taking conflict personally refers to the degree to which a person experiences negative consequences from conflict,” Richards said. “That is, they perceive conflict as a punishing or hurtful activity.”
In a study published in the Western Journal of Communication, Richards looked at whether the negative connotations of conflict were specific to certain relationships, such as a spouse, co-worker or parent.
Richards conducted the research alongside his dissertation adviser, Dale Hample, an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. Decades ago, Hample and his wife, Judith Dallinger, a now-retired professor of communication, were “sitting at dinner when we came up with this idea that how personally we take a given conflict varies according to each individual,” Hample said.
The couple’s ensuing research confirmed what they expected: that conflict in certain relationships — including arguments between parents and their children — causes more pain than it does in platonic or workplace relationships. Worse, the consequences of the most painful types of conflict tend to linger.
For Richards’ study, he surveyed nearly 600 adults in the United States to rate how they respond to arguments with a child, romantic partner, boss, co-worker, parent or friend.
“In addition to relationship types, we also looked at whether people were satisfied in those relationships and whether they were important to them,” Richards said. People suffered fewer negative effects from conflict in more satisfying relationships, he found. On the flip side, the more important the relationship, the more charged the conflict could become.
The study also revealed that a high-stakes argument between a married couple, for example, may not cause irreparable damage. “We were a little surprised to learn that spouses who hash out a conflict often find that this type of communication is meaningful and ultimately leads to long-lasting satisfaction,” Richards said.
But the effect of serial conflict — those habitual arguments that may span months, years, even decades — is rarely positive. Relationships between parents and their adult children seem especially vulnerable to these kinds of unproductive skirmishes. Knowing this could help both parties learn to set aside their differences and move forward. In other words, Richards’ insights could teach people how to fight right.
“On a relational level, if you feel like your 8-year-old self when fighting with your mother over the same issue again and again, it becomes a recurrent marker of that relationship,” Richards said. “We have found that if you want to establish a different pattern of conflict, it is most likely going to take a mutual commitment. In other words, both parties need to change.”
BY LISA MARTIN