Pretending everything is fine to avoid conflict at home or in the workplace, and shielding children from disagreements between parents, can have long-term consequences. By Nicky Pellegrino.
When US actor Jenny McCarthy first got together with husband Donnie Wahlberg, she insisted they have couples therapy so they could learn how to argue properly. McCarthy wanted to know what their fighting styles were. Did they both shut down when they were angry with each other, or did one of them need to talk it out? The tools they were given to fight constructively have since proved "priceless", McCarthy recently told chat-show host Drew Barrymore.
It may sound like a very Hollywood conceit to spend time and money learning how to disagree, but the work of Nickola Overall, a professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, suggests that if we all followed McCarthy's example, our relationships would benefit.
Conflict is inevitable, at work, at home and everywhere in between. And yet most of us try to avoid it.
"In our British-based culture, we're taught more to suppress our emotions, to reduce conflict, to not express dissatisfaction," says Overall. "And that isn't very good for our personal relationships or our health and well-being."
Overall has been researching relationships for 15 years. She describes herself as a social and behavioural scientist who is interested in the ordinary ways we lead our lives. And she has found, somewhat controversially, that conflict can be a positive thing, even when it is expressed with anger and hostility.
No holding back
Engaging in conflict isn't something she is shy of herself. Growing up in Te Kuiti, in a large and loud family, Overall learnt to be comfortable with expressing her feelings.
"We're very direct," she says. "I remember a colleague once coming for dinner with some of my family and afterwards he looked a little shell-shocked and said, 'I'm not surprised you study direct communication.'"
Overall's research involves bringing couples into a lab, turning on discreetly positioned video cameras and encouraging them to talk about the stuff that is bothering them.
You might think most people would hold back, but that hasn't proved to be the case.
"We get them to have discussions about their most serious problems," says Overall. "This is not new information – these things have been discussed before – so couples very quickly go back into their normal communication patterns. We see a whole range of behaviours. We see yelling, we see swearing, we see crying and we see warmth and affection."
The only difference from real-life encounters is that no one storms out, and researchers never see the physical aggression they know is happening at home for some of their couples.
After getting this window on how people tend to communicate, Overall follows them to see whether problems are resolved, and if they remain satisfied in the relationship.
"In longitudinal studies, what you tend to see is that relationship satisfaction declines slightly," she says. "What we're trying to do is predict how we can prevent that decline from happening, how we can sustain satisfaction."
What Overall has discovered is that conflict can be beneficial. Couples who get their problems out in the open and give them a good airing have stronger relationships over time. In contrast, suppressing dissatisfaction and leaving problems unaddressed and unresolved can eventually damage a relationship.
"Negative emotions provide us with important information," says Overall. "When you feel angry, something has gone wrong. That's important for you and it's important for the other person to understand. No matter what the context, when you express anger and hostility, the other person knows something needs to be changed and is more likely to change it."
We tend to be conditioned to try to keep things sunny and positive at home and at work, to minimise conflict and soften any negativity. "That may sustain social harmony, at least in the short term, but it has costs in terms of problems remaining unresolved and negative emotions and dissatisfaction boiling under the surface. It's a risk for depression when you suppress negative emotions."
Expressing anger and hostility, even being critical and derogatory, is better than bottling it all up, says Overall, but there are caveats.
"I've told you the benefits, but that doesn't mean you can now just go, 'Well, I can be angry and aggressive, I can be hostile, because it's good for me, it's good for my relationship.'"
Conflict is beneficial only when the expression of negativity matches the seriousness of the problem. "It can't just be because the towel has been left on the floor and then you're exploding."
The other key is conflict recovery, the ability to have a big old barney and express yourself fully, then resolve the problem and move on.
Ironically, with the long-term couples Overall works with, a common point of conflict is communication. "That is usually at the top of the list. Couples have conflict about not being able to have conflict, basically. It's also what relationship therapists would indicate is the most difficult problem to treat."
People also tend to fight about finances, parenting/childcare, division of labour, spending time together and intimacy.
Overall is focusing some of her research on how relationship conflicts can affect children. Although a lot of fighting at home may be harmful for a child's emotional security, there is reason to believe that going the other way and avoiding arguments in front of them isn't ideal, either. Children will face conflict situations of their own with siblings, friends and teachers, and they need to learn how to manage them.
"Parents' conflict engagement can have benefits for children in terms of modelling problem-solving," says Overall. "Hiding it doesn't teach them how emotions can be expressed constructively."
So, does Overall practise what she preaches in her relationships? She says that, mostly, she manages to get problems out into the open and, in situations where she suppresses any dissatisfaction, it always leaves her unhappy.
"I'm very clear that conflict engagement is important. As long as it's proportionate and done as constructively as possible, it's going to be more helpful than harmful."