Claudia Haase's New Study: Wives Matter More in Calming Marital Conflict

Claudia Haase's New Study: Wives Matter More in Calming Marital Conflict

Claudia Haase

Wives acting as peacemakers prove beneficial to a marriage. A new study co-authored by SESP assistant professor Claudia Haase has found that, when it comes to keeping the peace, it’s more important for wives than for husbands to calm down after a heated argument.

“The study shows that it is particularly important for wives to calm down in a heated argument if marital harmony is going to be preserved over time. Interestingly though, we did not see evidence that wives and husbands differed in their actual ability to calm down during conflict,” says Haase. Moreover, the husbands’ emotional regulation had little or no bearing on long-term marital satisfaction, according to the study’s findings published online in the journal Emotion.

“When it comes to managing negative emotion during conflict, wives really matter,” says psychologist Lian Bloch, lead author of the study, which was conducted at University of California, Berkeley. She is currently an assistant professor at the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

Researchers at Berkeley and Northwestern University analyzed videotaped interactions of more than 80 middle-aged and older heterosexual couples, focusing on how they recovered from disagreements. Time and again they found that marriages in which wives quickly calmed down during disputes were ultimately shown to be 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 says.

While it is commonly held that women play the role of caretaker and peacemaker in relationships, the study is among the first to reveal this dynamic in action over a long period of time, researchers point out. 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,” says UC Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson, senior author of the study. Ironically, the same is not true for husbands, who are often seen as jumping into problem-solving mode.

Haase noted that age may play a role in how couples interact when conflicts arise. “The middle-aged and older couples in our study grew up in a world that treated men and women very differently,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how these gender dynamics play out in younger couples.”

Participants in this study are part of a cohort of 156 heterosexual couples in the San Francisco Bay Area whose relationships Levenson and fellow researchers have tracked since 1989. Every five years, the couples come to Levenson’s lab at Berkeley to report on their marital satisfaction and to discuss areas of conflict in their relationships. Researchers code their conversations based on facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and topic of discussion.

In this latest look at the 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.

The ability to calm down during marital conflict may be pertinent in other areas besides marital happiness. “In a new line of research, we are also looking at links to wives' and husbands' symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Haase says.

By Yasmin Anwar, adapted by SESP
Last Modified: 11/20/13