How Older Couples Handle Conflict: Just Avoid It

aging couple
As people age, they tend to deal with conflicts by avoiding them. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

When older couples argue, they're more likely to handle the conflict by changing the subject, a new study finds.

The study tracked 127 middle-age (defined as age 40–50) and elderly long-term married couples over 13 years, video-recording brief discussions to see how the couples handled controversial topics such as housework or finances.

The researchers focused on how aging couples used a common form of communication known as the "demand-withdraw pattern." This pattern involves one partner blaming their partner or pressuring them to change (the "demanding" role), as the other partner avoids talking about the problem or leaves the interaction (the "withdrawing" role). This type of communication is "self-perpetuating and polarizing," study researcher Sarah Holley, a psychologist at San Francisco State University, said in a statement.

"If a husband withdraws in response to his wife's demands to do the dishes, for example, that withdrawal can lead to an escalation in the wife's demands, which in turn may fuel the husband's tendency to withdraw from the argument, and so on," Holley said. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]

As the couples aged, most aspects of their demand-withdraw communication stayed the same, but both spouses showed a greater tendency to avoid the subject of a conflict, revealed the findings, published online today (July 1) in the Journal of Marriage and Family. Older husbands and wives demonstrated more of a tendency to change the subject or draw attention away from it.

Normally, avoiding a conflict is considered harmful to relationships — especially in younger couples — because the conflicts go unresolved. Older couples, on the other hand, have been dealing with disagreements for decades, so if both partners avoid so-called "toxic" areas, it could steer the conversation to a more neutral subject. 

The pattern of conflict avoidance parallels the shifts in socioemotional goals as people age, Holley said. As people age, they tend to avoid conflict and give up unattainable goals. People focus instead on seeking positive experiences, studies have shown, possibly to get the most out of the remainder of their lives.

The length of the relationship, rather than the couple's ages, may be causing the avoidance behavior. Or both factors may play a role, the researchers said.

Demand-withdraw communication is not confined to the stereotype of a nagging wife and silent husband, Holley said. She has studied this pattern in many different types of couples. In a 2010 study comparing gay, lesbian and heterosexual couples, Holley found that the partner who seeks change is more likely to take on the demanding role, while the partner who wants things to stay the same is more likely to take on the withdrawing role.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.