This One Habit May Reduce Relationship Conflict, Study Finds

Assistant Managing Editor By Abby Moore
Assistant Managing Editor
Abby Moore is an assistant managing editor at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Upset Couple In An Argument

Spending an unforeseen amount of uninterrupted time with anyone—even someone you love—can take a toll. So it's no wonder relationship conflict began to rise during the pandemic lockdown. Aside from living in such close quarters, the added stress of potential health or financial setbacks definitely created trouble in paradise. 

While mbg has received plenty of expert tips for de-escalating conflict, a recent study published in the journal Couple & Family Psychology: Research and Practice found one we hadn't heard of yet: an introspective writing exercise

One exercise to help mitigate conflict. 

The researchers surveyed 716 U.S. adults during the lockdown to find out what kind of interventions might help mitigate conflict. At the start of the study, the participants were asked to write about the frequency, duration, and intensity of a standard fight with partners. Then they were randomly assigned to one of five writing prompts, including: 

  • A conflict with their romantic partner using cognitive reappraisal, i.e., from a neutral, third-party point of view of someone who has the couple's best interests in mind
  • A conflict with their romantic partner expressing their deepest thoughts and feelings
  • A conflict with someone other than their partner using cognitive reappraisal
  • A conflict with someone other than their partner, and a conflict with their partner expressing their deepest thoughts and feelings
  • Mundane tasks like laundry, house cleaning, or lawn care

Those who were asked to write about a recent disagreement from a third-party perspective reported having fewer disagreements, less aggression, and lower levels of conflict relentlessness with their partners in a two-week follow-up. 

"Writing from a neutral standpoint allowed individuals to reframe their thoughts about the disagreement, opening up a new way for people to process the event in a more objective light," Lindsey Rodriguez, Ph.D., the lead study author and associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, said in a news release. "It lets people move beyond the commonly seen 'this is why I am right and you are wrong' defensive stance and puts what is often a small disagreement into the perspective of the entire relationship."

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The bottom line.

This study was conducted during lockdown, when couples were in closer quarters and potentially experiencing higher than normal stress levels. However, the researchers say this introspective strategy of writing from an objective, third-party standpoint can be helpful in mitigating most romantic conflicts, regardless of context.

"When people are asked to discuss relationship problems with their partner, there are elements of pride and ego that can get in the way of being objective," Rodriguez explained. "While talking to a partner about why you might be wrong is really hard to do for many people, especially if it is a charged topic...the practice of doing it within yourself allows for the space to process in ways that might lead to more empathy, understanding and compromise."

Looking for more ways to keep the arguments at bay? Take this note, shared on the mbg podcast, by psychologists and relationship experts John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Gottman, Ph.D.

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