If you and your spouse argue a lot now, don't expect things to change as you grow old together. A new study finds that conflict levels remain relatively unchanged throughout a marriage.
Thankfully, the same goes for happy, conflict-free couples, the researchers said, adding that spouses who shared decision-making responsibilities were happier and less likely to divorce.
The study followed nearly 1,000 couples for 20 years. In 1980, researchers questioned 2,033 married people ages 55 years or younger about the quality of their marriage and their relationship with their spouse. The same couples were interviewed up to five more times through 2000.
Conflict levels were gauged by how often respondents said they disagreed with their spouse — never, rarely, sometimes, often or very often. Based on these results, the researchers categorized the marriages as high, middle and low conflict.
"There wasn't much change in conflict over time," study researcher Claire Kamp Dush of Ohio State University said in a statement. "There was a very slight decrease in the amount of conflict reported in the final years of the study, which was slightly larger for the high-conflict couples. Still, the differences over time were small."
The researchers also used a classification system developed by psychologists to group marriages into four general types: volatile, validator, hostile and avoider. About 54 percent of couples were in the validator marriage category, which consisted of lower conflict couples who had equal decision-making input. These individuals also reported high or moderate levels of happiness and had low levels of divorce.
"The validator marriages are often seen as positive because couples are engaged with each other and are happy," Kamp Dush said. "We found that in these marriages, each partner shared in decision-making and in housework."
About 6 percent of participants fell into the avoider category: These low-conflict couples followed traditional gender roles, with husbands abstaining from housework and the participants believing in lifelong marriage.
"People who believe marriage should last forever may also believe that fighting is just not worth it," Kamp Dush said. "They may be more likely to just let disagreements go."
About 20 percent of subjects were in volatile marriages, which were characterized by high conflict and high or moderate levels of happiness. The remaining participants were in hostile marriages, with high conflict and low levels of happiness, and were the most likely to divorce.
The researchers also found that people in low-conflict marriages were more likely than others to say they shared decision-making with their spouses.
"That's interesting because you might think that making decisions jointly would create more opportunities for conflict, but that's not what we found," Kamp Dush said. "A healthy marriage needs to have both spouses engaged and invested in the relationship."
The study authors used data from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course survey, which was conducted by researchers at Penn State University.
The study will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Family Issues.