The key to marital bliss may be as simple as changing the topic to avoid arguments, a new study has found.
While younger couples may resort to heated arguments to settle a disagreement, older ones are more likely to avoid conflict altogether by changing the topic, researchers found.
The study by San Francisco State University followed 127 middle-aged and older long-term married couples across 13 years, checking in to see how they communicated about conflicts from housework to finances.
The researchers videotaped the couples' 15-minute discussions, noting the types of communication they used when talking about contentious topics.
Sarah Holley, SF State assistant professor of psychology who directs the University's Relationships, Emotion and Health Lab, and colleagues wanted to see how the couples might change in their use of a common and destructive type of communication, the demand-withdraw pattern, as they aged.
In the demand-withdraw pattern, one person in a relationship blames or pressures their partner for a change, while the partner tries to avoid discussion of the problem or passively withdraws from the interaction.
The researchers found that while most aspects of demand-withdraw communication remained steady over time, both husbands and wives "increased their tendency to demonstrate avoidance during conflict," Holley said.
That is, when faced with an area of disagreement, both spouses were more likely to do things such as change the subject or divert attention from the conflict.
Avoidance is generally thought to be damaging to relationships as it gets in the way of conflict resolution. For younger couples, who may be grappling with newer issues, this may be particularly true.
But for older couples, who have had decades to voice their disagreements, avoidance may be a way to move the conversation away from "toxic" areas and toward more neutral or pleasant topics, the researchers suggested.
"This is in line with age-related shifts in socioemotional goals wherein individuals tend toward less conflict and greater goal disengagement in later life stages," Holley said.
She explained that several studies have shown, that as people age they place less importance on arguments and seek more positive experiences, perhaps out of a sense of making the most out of their remaining years.
The age of the partners appears to be driving this important communication shift, the researchers suggested, but the change could also be influenced by the length of the couples' relationship.