4 Ways Personality Shapes How Couples Deal with Conflict

Whenever you're in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude. —William James

Close personal relationships are a key part of life for most of us. Developing and sustaining satisfying relationships with long-term romantic partners is challenging, and low quality relationships are literally bad for our health. U.S. divorce rates are topping 50 percent, giving couples roughly the odds of a coin’s toss of being together in the long run. There are many factors which contribute to the durability of intimate relationships. Yet these factors are multi-layered, and inter-related. Researchers and practitioners understand some of the issues, but not how they all link together. This isn’t surprising, because relationships are complex and difficult to study from a research perspective. If relationships were easy to understand, I'm not sure what William Shakespeare would have written.

Conflict resolution, personality and relationship satisfaction

In their recent work, Taggart, Bannon and Hammett from UCLA and Stony Brook University direct their attention toward understanding how communication, and more specifically conflict resolution, interacts with the personality of partners in long-term relationships to predict relationship satisfaction. In reviewing the literature on communication and relationship satisfaction, they note that while there is evidence that higher quality communication and conflict negotiation is related to future satisfaction and stability in relationships, additional research suggests that the picture is not so clear after all—although counterintuitive, there are situations in which negative communication patterns may be associated with greater satisfaction, and it may also be that relationship satisfaction predicts more positive communication, not the other way around, contributing to false confidence that good conflict resolution may cause relationship satisfaction.

Taggart and colleagues go on to note that the existing literature has not looked as closely at how individual personality traits—the “Big 5” openness, agreeableness, extroversion, neuroticism and conscientiousness—may act as an mediating factor between conflict resolution and relationship satisfaction. In looking at the literature on personality and relationship satisfaction, they report that prior research suggests that while agreeableness and conscientiousness tend to be associated with longer-term relationship stability, neuroticism is associated with poorer relationship outcomes.

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While neuroticism has upside potential, it is also associated with relationship-busting qualities, including avoidant coping, tendencies to make demands and then become unavailable, and generally unconstructive approaches to dealing with and resolving conflict. In spite of some work on personality, conflict resolution and relationships satisfaction, study authors note that the existing research has not looked closely at how personality mediates between conflict resolution and relationship satisfaction, and that the existing research has not adequately assessed personality for both partners due to methodological limitations. Given the critical importance of understanding how these factors play out in intimate relationships, they set out to study the relationships and personality in more detail.

Studying key psychological factors in real couples

In order to so do, as part of a broader ongoing study, they analyzed data from 58 couples from a university setting, ranging in age from 18 to 29, approximately half Caucasian, a quarter Latino, 20 percent Asian, and the remainder from other ethnic groups. Relationship duration ranged from 3 months to 6 years (average relationship time 20 months), with measures at two points 4 months apart for study purposes. Couples in this study were in committed dating relationships, neither living together nor married.

Participants completed rating scales to assess 1) relationship satisfaction, using the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS-7), which looks at shared values and philosophy of life, time spent together, quality of the relationship, and collaborative ability; 2) conflict resolution, using the Ineffective Arguing Inventory (IAI), measuring how well couples addressed issues, for example estimating how many days they would go before resolving a problem; 3) and personality traits, using the Big Five Inventory (BFI-10), a short scale of the traits of extroversion, openness, agreeableness, neuroticism and conscientiousness correlating well with longer instruments. They also asked about baseline relationship satisfaction and other basic variables in order to adjust statistically for differences among participants.

The data was analyzed to test the fit of various underlying models, for example comparing models of the relationships among personality, conflict resolution and relationship satisfaction to see whether interactions among the factors were relevant as would be the case for a more complex model, or whether interactions were not important, suggesting a more straightforward set of relationships among the different factors. The final best-fit model turned out to include complex interactions among personality, relationship satisfaction and conflict resolution, showing that different personality traits affected the connection between communication and relationship outcomes, as follows:

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  1. Overall relationship satisfaction had a comparatively weak association with conflict resolution skills. Without taking personality into account, it is hard to predict future relationship outcomes solely from participants’ ability to deal with couples challenges.
  2. Lower levels of neuroticism predicted greater relationship satisfaction by interacting with conflict resolution skills, and by the same token, higher levels of neuroticism interacted with conflict resolution with a weaker association with future relationship satisfaction. This is consistent with prior research, and we can understand that stronger catastrophic emotional reactions and a tendency to see things in a negative light make it harder for more neurotic people to manage interpersonal conflict.
  3. Counterintuitively, lower levels of conscientiousness interacted with conflict resolution to predict greater relationship satisfaction, and higher levels of conscientiousness predicted lower relationship satisfaction in terms of how this trait impacted conflict resolution skills. This is notable because conscientious people generally are more successful. Perhaps being too driven and detail-oriented backfires when it comes to dealing with conflicts, when a well-intentioned partner may veer into what feels perfectionistic, getting stuck on minor issues, setting impossible goals, and possibly more concerned with doing things the “right way” rather than going along with more useful, simpler, and possibly more constructive approaches for the couple to deal with conflict.
  4. Agreeableness, surprisingly, did not impact the association between conflict resolution and relationship satisfaction. We typically think of agreeableness as a positive quality, someone who doesn’t want to make trouble and who wants to be liked by and get along well with others. On the face of it, these seem like qualities one would want in partner when adversity comes up, but agreeableness neither helped nor hindered conflict resolution meaningfully for future relationship satisfaction. For the couples in this study, being agreeable may be too bland, lacking sufficient spice to drive the couple to greater intimacy if one partner is “too easy” to get along with, at least over the shorter time frame of this study. While we may sometimes wish our partners were more agreeable in the heat of contention, we might regret it if they actually were because we could become bored, underchallenged, and not distinct enough from one another to keep the relationship fresh and interesting.

To be together or not to be together?

Future research will look at how personality traits play out over a longer period of time, with older couples and more committed relationships, and with "non-traditional" relationships as well, much harder to study than those including only two main players. It will be useful to understand what makes for constructive conflict, and how different personality traits than the Big 5 (for example, perfectionism and different types of narcissism) and attachment style interact with one another as another factor connected with relationship satisfaction. Interventions based on personalized assessment of the partners in each couple, and how they interact as a function of what factors, will hopefully improve the quality of couples interventions, and also allow couples who aren't destined to remain together to separate constructively.

The work discussed here is of particular importance for younger couples who are dating because of similarity to the study group, though caution is always required when generalizing from a single research study. Early on in relationships, before bigger steps like moving in together or making a formal commitment are made, it's most important to think about how the couple deals with challenges and what the likelihood is, down the road, of having a stable and satisfying relationship. While conflict can tear us apart, the right kind of conflict for any particular couple not only is unavoidable and necessary to deal with issues, but it may also liven up the relationship, providing opportunities for excitement and individuality.

Attachment can be so powerful and social norms so inviolable, even when relationships aren't shaping up to be healthy or fulfilling, that it isn't clear whether partners would want to really consider their future prospects together, let alone decide to break-up. If they want to, however, research on what makes for successful relationships is becoming more sophisticated and potentially relevant for real-world couples. If you are in a relationship, getting a sense of one another's Big 5 traits may help thoughtful couples navigate conflict more effectively, providing insight about how partners traits may be getting in the way, and what steps might help to get through conflict more effectively.

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What can we do with personality to improve relationship outcomes?

While self-control is a moving target, self-understanding is a good place to start in order to achieve relationship goals. If I am more on the neurotic side, for example, it may be useful for me to make a concerted effort to consider positive aspects of situations I'm in when I find myself seeing all the bad and none of the good—and to listen to my partner when he or she reminds me it isn't all bad, rather than withdrawing. It may be more helpful to make a concerted effort to stay present especially when bringing up areas of conflict—rather than initiating a hot-button convo and then refusing to participate in wrapping up the subject! Leaving our partners holding the emotional bag only engenders resentment and loneliness.

If I pride myself on how conscientious I am, that's wonderful, but while discussing a potentially inflammatory subject with another person, it may be helpful to dial it back in order to allow the conversation to take more constructive directions. It's better lose the battle, perhaps, when that means winning the war together. Trying too hard may just mess things up, while also giving one partner a false claim of defensive superiority that he or she is the only one who "really" cares.

And finally, in terms of the research discussed here, being too agreeable isn't necessarily a great way to deal with conflict. By being so agreeable, we may be setting aside our own needs too much, getting through the conflict on the surface, while neglecting serious concerns. Having a better understanding of how agreeableness in particular connects with relationship satisfaction is important, as excessive disagreeableness is not likely to help move things along, either.

Beyond individual factors, future research looking at partner personality interaction will deepen our understanding. What personality traits pair best together? For example, if one partner is neurotic, are they more likely to pair with other neurotic partners? If that happens, is it a double-whammy? What do double neurotic couples need to do to deal constructively with conflict? Generally speaking, what constellations of personality traits pair best together to predict a successful relationship?

In the age of internet dating, understanding what makes relationships durable and successful is the gold ring. Because relationships are so multifactorial, research identifying specific factors in advance is always going to be incomplete, if informative. Using computer learning models will be a game changer (e.g. as used to understand depression), because big data moves beyond conventional statistical approaches as artificial intelligence can recognize atheoretical patterns in a much larger sea of information than human researchers can fathom.