Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

The Effects of Briefly Interrupting Marital Conflict

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

The Effects of Briefly Interrupting Marital Conflict

Article excerpt

The goal of this article was to begin creating a library of effective proximal change interventions that can interrupt marital conflict and can affect positivity and negativity in couples' conflict interactions. This is a much smaller goal than changing the entire relationship. Hopefully, such small experiments may help create a minimal, empirically based couples therapy that would be less expensive than current therapies. However, as Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) suggested in their classic book, Change, there is a danger of creating a library of interventions that produce only what they called "first-order change," which occurs when the interacting system absorbs the intended change without changing at all. Then, the change itself becomes the problem, and the intended intervention becomes what they called, "more of the same." They also defined "secondorder change" as changes that altered the interacting system in some fundamental way.

We started building this library of interventions very simply, with some basic previous findings about positivity and negativity in relationships. Correlational research has established that unhappily married couples tend to be more negative and also less positive toward one another, especially during conflict conversations. For example, criticism is toxic to marriages and is included in the four specific negative affects found to predict marital distress and dissolution (Flora & Segrin, 2000; Gottman, 1994). Criticism is also associated with other interactional patterns predictive of marital instability, such as the Demand-Withdraw pattern (Christensen & Heavey, 1999; Eldridge & Christensen, 2002) negative reciprocity (Gottman, 1979) and negative escalation (Burman, Margolin, & John, 1993; Margolin &Wampold, 1981).

On the positive side of the equation, supportive behaviors have been positively associated with marital satisfaction (Pasch & Bradbury, 1998). Although compliments have been widely studied in contexts of parenting (e.g., Wahler & Meginnis, 1997; Webster-Stratton, 1985) and learning and motivation (e.g., Bracken & Lombard, 2004; Henderlong & Lepper, 2002; Koestner, Zuckerman, & Olsson, 1990), there is very little intervention research examining the effects of compliments in the context of couples' relationships. However, correlational studies cannot determine causality, while experiments can.

This study assigned couples to one of two proximal change interventions, each lasting 20 min, and each interrupting the couples' conflict discussion, or a control condition. In the first, intervention spouses complimented one another's positive personal traits, an intervention designed to increase positive affect. In the second intervention, designed to increase negative affect, spouses were asked to heighten criticism by discussing areas of concern about their partner's personality and heighten criticizing about these negative traits. In the control condition, couples read magazines for 20 min.

However, we worried about the problem of creating merely first-order changes, so, as a manipulation check, we coded the videotapes of how couples engaged in these two interventions. Klein, Renshaw, and Curby (2016) found that the perceptions of hostile criticism were associated with low relationship happiness. We, therefore, reasoned that some couples might absorb any attempts to change their relationship by perceptually reframing the intervention to be consistent with their typical interaction patterns, while other couples might allow for an actual second-order change. Consistent with Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch, we indeed found that some couples actually used the compliments intervention condition to criticize their partner, harmonious with their prior behavior patterns on the pre-intervention conflict interaction. For example, one person in a hostile relationship (as indicated by the prior conflict interaction) said, "I don't think you have any of these (positive) traits, so I picked three I'd like you to work on. …

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