The happiest young couples may be involved in a different kind of engagement.
Young adults who easily engage in rewarding conversations with their partners are less likely to hold onto anger and stress and more likely to be satisfied with the relationship, according to research from Kansas State University.
Brenda McDaniel, assistant professor of psychology, has been studying conflict and conflict recovery in young dating couples by examining self-reported questionnaires, physiological markers of stress and videotaped emotional reactions. McDaniel has looked at factors that relate to positive dating relationships or problematic relationships.
For the research, McDaniel and her team worked with more than 50 couples ages 18 to 20 who had been dating for a least six months but were not engaged, married or living together.
“These relationships are, by nature, unstable to begin with,” McDaniel said. “They are early dating relationships. Sometimes it is hard to even get the couples to engage in conflict. Conflict does exist but, because the relationship is so new to them, they don’t want to cause a break-up.”
To observe stress hormone levels, researchers had participants spend 20 minutes talking about a topic that continually causes relationship tension. Often, conflict occurred when one partner treated the other differently in front of family, did not introduce the other to parents and friends, or was flirting with someone else.
“Typically, the couple is not going to come to a resolution regarding the reoccurring conflict within the 20 minute discussion,” McDaniel said. “But we want to get the stress response to see how couples recover from that relationship stress.”
After the stressful discussion, couples spent 20 minutes discussing a positive shared time during their relationship. Some of the happy discussions involved reminiscing about their first date, their first kiss or a vacation together. The researchers tracked physiological markers of stress and videotaped emotional reaction before, during and after both the conflict discussion and the happier discussion.
“Whenever you get into a fight and you get amped up, it is typically more adaptive to let that go after the fight,” McDaniel said. “If you ruminate and keep that anger, it can have negative mental and physical consequences. It’s better to have a nice downward recovery after conflict.”
To see if a downward recovery occurred in couples, researchers examined levels of the stress hormone cortisol before the conflict discussion, after the conflict discussion and after the “happy times” discussion. If the cortisol levels resembled an inverted V shape — low before the conflict discussion, high after the conflict discussion, and low again after the happier discussion — the person often reported higher relationship satisfaction and higher relationship closeness. Participants whose cortisol levels stayed high instead of coming back down after the happier discussion reported lower relationship satisfaction and less relationship closeness.
“In addition to recovery being associated with positive relationship outcomes, we also saw recovery being related to conversation flow,” McDaniel said. “Those individuals whose stress hormone levels remained high didn’t enter into that state of flow.”
Flow is like being “in the zone,” McDaniel said. People might be in a state of flow if they are so engaged they lose track of time, or get a sense of enjoyment or creativity from an experience. Flow is often used to describe an athlete who is “hot” during a basketball game or a painter during the creation of a painting.
“A majority of the literature focuses on experiencing flow in a job or activity,” McDaniel said. “But our study examined how couples might experience flow during conversation.”
The researchers found that engaging in flow is often associated with positive characteristics of relationships. Somewhat surprisingly, it didn’t depend on what one partner was doing — a person who was happy and in a positive mood could engage in flow even if his or her partner was not “in the zone.”
McDaniel said this disconnect in flow may be because of the nature of late adolescent relationships — 18- to 20-year-olds are still more focused on themselves than on others. In relationships, they are often more focused on how they feel about the relationship and what they are getting out of it rather than a mutual process that includes how the other person feels about the relationship.
“While more research needs to be done, this positive rewarding state of flow during conversation may be one of the factors that create enduring marital relationships,” McDaniel said. “Hence, these early relationships may serve as practice for later long-term relationship.”
McDaniel also has a recommendation for young dating couples who want to improve their relationship.
“Try to engage in as much conversation as you can with potential romantic partners,” McDaniel said. “The partners that provide you with the most rewarding experience during those conversations are likely the ones to pursue.”