Academic journal article Communication Studies

You Never Leave Your Family in a Fight: The Impact of Family of Origin on Conflict-Behavior in Romantic Relationships

Academic journal article Communication Studies

You Never Leave Your Family in a Fight: The Impact of Family of Origin on Conflict-Behavior in Romantic Relationships

Article excerpt

Interpersonal conflict occurs whenever there is a disagreement, difference, or incompatibility between partners (Cahn, 1992). Communication behaviors associated with conflict vary greatly and are crucial in shaping and guiding ongoing relationships (Cahn, 1992). Interpersonal conflict and how it is handled is associated with relationship satisfaction (Bowman, 1990; Menaghan, 1982; Rands, Levinger & Mellinger, 1981), attributions made about the partner and the relationship (Doherty, 1982; Fincham, 1985; Fincham, Beach & Nelson, 1987; Fletcher & Fincham, 1991), and the stability of the relationship (Rusbult & Zembrodt, 1983; Rusbult, Zembrodt & Gunn, 1982). Thus, interpersonal conflict is among the most important issues in the study of interpersonal communication.

Conflict Behaviors and Relational Outcomes

During dyadic conflict, communication behaviors that are generally associated with positive outcomes for relationship satisfaction and stability are problem solving (Cahn, 1992), showing positive affect (Sillars, 1980), and face saving (Donohue & Kolt, 1992), whereas conflict avoidance (Fitzpatrick, 1991; Gottman, 1991), self-justification/blaming the other (Ting-Toomey, 1983), and coercive/controlling behavior (Billings, 1979) are usually associated with negative relationship outcomes. One has to be careful not to overgeneralize these findings, however, because not all people are affected by conflict behaviors in the same way. For example, both Fitzpatrick (1988; Burrell & Fitzpatrick, 1990) and Sillars (1995; Sillars, Pike, Jones & Redmon, 1983; Sillars & Scott, 1983) have observed that the outcomes of conflict communication depend heavily on individual differences, such as marriage types or the relationship schemas persons hold. Thus, functional conflict behaviors in one relationship might be dysfunctional in another and vice versa.

Similarly, the impact that specific behaviors have also depends on when they are performed in an ongoing conflict episode (Fitzpatrick & Fallis, 1982). For example, an aggressive act in response to a conciliatory act has a different impact than an aggressive act in response to an accusation. For that reason, researchers have increasingly focused on the interaction sequences between the conflicting partners rather than on individual behaviors in isolation. Interaction sequences that are associated with negative outcomes for relationships are complementary behaviors such as withdraw-demand (i.e., Gottman & Krokoff, 1989) and symmetrical behaviors such as mutual negative affect (Christensen, 1988). On the other hand, mutually positive behaviors such as acceptance and problem solving are associated with positive outcomes for relationships (Christensen, 1988).

The kind of conflict behaviors that persons exhibit during interpersonal conflict depends heavily on how they were socialized in regard to conflict. Noller (1995) has argued, but not showed empirically, that how persons communicate during conflict in their close interpersonal relationships and the impact that conflict has on these relationships is largely a function of how these persons have learned to deal with conflict in their families of origin. In other words, in regard to conflict behaviors, families are children's primary socialization agents (Fitzpatrick & Badzinski, 1994; Sillars, 1995) and influence children's behavior long after they have left their families of origin. Consequently, to predict individuals' conflict behaviors in close adult relationships requires an understanding of how their families of origin have dealt with conflict.

The goal of the present study is to test this theorized link between conflict styles of families of origin and the conflict styles of adult children in their own romantic relationships. Specifically, we compared the conflict styles of the family of origin with the conflict behavior adult children use in their subsequent romantic relationships to test the general prediction that the conflict styles acquired in families of origin are used by adult children in their own romantic relationships. …

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