Wives Calm Marital Waters

A study conducted at University of California at Berkeley concludes that it is more important for wives than for husbands to calm down after a heated argument. Women take the lead when it comes to deflecting conflict in a marriage, new study shows.

When it comes to keeping the peace, “when mama ain’t happy, no body is happy,” as the saying goes.

The study showed that while both spouses were equally able to cool down during conflicts, the husbands’ emotional regulation had little or no bearing on long-term marital satisfaction, according to the study’s findings published online November 2013 in the journal Emotion.

calmwaters“When it comes to managing negative emotion during conflict, wives really matter,” said psychologist Lian Bloch, lead author of the study, which Bloch conducted during doctoral and postdoctoral studies at Berkeley and Stanford. She is currently an assistant professor at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in a joint doctoral program taught by faculty at Stanford University and Palo Alto University.

Researchers at Berkeley and Northwestern University analyzed videotaped interactions of more than 80 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples. They focused on how they recovered from disagreements. Repeatedly, Bloch and the researchers found that marriages where wives quickly calmed down during disputes were the happiest, both in the short and long run.“Emotions such as anger and contempt can seem very threatening for couples. But our study suggests that if spouses, especially wives, are able to calm themselves, their marriages can continue to thrive,” Bloch said.

The study is among the first to reveal what is commonly believed: that women play the role of caretaker and peacemaker in relationships.

Results show that the link between the wives’ ability to control emotions and higher marital satisfaction was most evident when women used “constructive communication” to temper disagreements. “When wives discuss problems and suggest solutions, it helps couples deal with conflicts,” said UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the study. “Ironically, this may not work so well for husbands, whose wives often criticize for leaping into problem-solving mode too quickly.”

In this study of emotional forces at play in long-term marriages, researchers pinpointed the most negative peaks in the couple’s conversations and timed how long it took spouses to recover based on their body language, facial expressions, and emotional and physiological responses.

Levenson has conducted several studies that examine the workings of long-term marriages. Participants are part of a group of 156 heterosexual couples in the San Francisco Bay Area whose relationships he and fellow researchers have tracked since 1989.

Couples visit Levenson’s lab at Berkeley every five years to report on their marital satisfaction and conflict in their marriages. Researchers code their conversations based on facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and topic of discussion.

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