Relationship Conflict

Disagreements are inevitable in close relationships—every relationship experiences has sources of disagreement from time to time. Relationship conflict refers to serious disagreements or arguments, or conflicting preferences with close others. Here, we focus on assessing conflict with a romantic partner/spouse.

Conflict may be an acute event, such as a one-time disagreement due to a misunderstanding, or a protracted problem over a major issue (e.g., religious or political differences) that continually arises in the relationship. Conflict can be stressful and have damaging effects on both the individuals involved in the conflict, and those around them.

Wide-ranging research on close relationships indicates that relationships characterized by conflict tend to be less satisfying (for reviews, see Caughlin & Vangelisti, 2006; Fincham & Beach, 1999). Conflict in romantic couples has also been linked to poorer health outcomes (e.g., Burman & Margolin, 1992; Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2005), and identified as an antecedent of domestic violence, ineffective parenting, and relationship dissolution (for a review, see Booth, Crouter, & Clements, 2001). Marital conflict can also have a negative impact on children (e.g., Amato, Loomis, & Booth, 1995; Jekielek, 1998). And although frequency and severity of conflict have been linked to lower relationship quality, what matters is not whether conflict occurs, but how it is handled (Gordon & Chen, 2016). Conflicts that are dealt with constructively do not have the same negative effects on relationships as conflicts in which partners engage in negative, relationship-harming behaviors (for a review, see Heyman, 2001).

Measures assessing relationship conflict typically focus on (1) sources of conflict, (2) severity and frequency of conflict, and (3) responses to conflict.

Sources of Conflict

In order to identify the types of issues that instigate conflict in couples, researchers can ask people to list the 3-5 top sources of conflict in their relationship (see, e.g., Gordon & Chen, 2016). When using this approach, it can be useful to include follow up questions, such as how big of an issue this source of conflict is in their relationship, how frequently they argue about this source of conflict, and whether the problem is primarily their own, their partner’s or both of theirs. Another way to measure sources of conflict is to provide individuals with a checklist of common sources of conflict, such as the 15-item version included in the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (Spanier, 1976) or the 10-item Couples Problem Inventory (CPI; Gottman, Markman, & Notarius, 1976). These measures ask how strongly the couple disagrees on issues such as finances, communication, sex, in-laws, food choices, demonstrations of affection, political views, friendships/social activities outside of your relationship, career decisions, household chores, and child-rearing practices, and religious matters. The CPI assesses the frequency and severity of conflict on a 0-100 point scale. It is important to have each partner in a couple complete these separately, as they often do not show perfect agreement on their sources of disagreement.

Severity and Frequency of Conflict

Some couples argue frequently, while others argue rarely. In order to measure the frequency and severity of the conflict, researchers can use short scales that ask people direct questions about their experiences of conflict in their relationships. These six items tap into both severity and frequency: “My partner and I have a lot of disagreements,” “I feel like all my partner and I do is fight,” “There is a lot of conflict in my relationship,” “I am often irritated by my partner,” “My partner and I are always in agreement on major issues” (reverse scored), and “It is rare that my partner and I get in a big argument” (reverse scored). Participants can rate their agreement with each item on a 7-point scale (1 = Completely disagree, 7 = Completely agree; Gordon & Chen, 2016). Braiker and Kelley (1979) also have a 5-item scale that measures conflict-negativity. The items ask participants to reflect on the past, but we have adapted them here for an ongoing relationship: How often do you and your partner argue with each other? To what extent do you try to change things about your partner that bother you (e.g., behaviors, attitudes, etc.)? How often do you feel angry or resentful towards your partner? When you and your partner argue, how serious are the problems? Researchers could anchor these questions on a 5, 7 or 9 point scale from “Never” to “All the time”.

Responses to Conflict

Self-reported responses to conflict. Identifying the strategies people use to deal with conflict and relationship dissatisfaction can also be useful. One scale measures Interpersonal Conflict Styles (Rahim, 1983) by breaking them down into five styles along two dimensions: concern for self and concern for others. People are integrating when they have a high concern for themselves and for others and look for a way to solve the problem that satisfies both people. People are avoiding when they have low concern for both themselves and others, which leads them to avoid conflict altogether. People are dominating when they have a high concern for themselves and low concern for others, which leads them to push to get their way. People are obliging when they have low concern for themselves and high concern for others, which leads them to give in to the other person. People are compromising when they are in the middle—seeking a way to solve the problem but accepting some give and take.

There is also a 15-item scale, the conflict subscale of the Marital Coping Inventory (Bowman, 1990) that assesses people’s hostile conflict behaviors as part of a larger measure assessing marital coping styles. This includes items like “I yell or shout at my partner” and “I am sarcastic to my partner.”

The 39 item Revised Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS2; Strauss, Hamby, & Boney-McCoy, 1996) measures psychological and physical attacks on a partner in response to conflict. This measure assesses the use of five tactics that span from constructive to violent: negotiation (e.g., “Suggested compromise to an argument), psychological aggression (e.g., “Shouted at partner”), physical assault (e.g., “Hit partner with something”), sexual coercion (e.g., “Used threats to make partner have sex”), and injury (e.g., “Partner was cut or bleeding”).

Observed behaviors during conflict conversations. Researchers often bring couples into the laboratory or videotape them at home having a conversation about a source of conflict in their relationship. These conversations typically last from 8-20 minutes and are typically videotaped to allow researchers to code the couple’s behaviors during the discussion. Given that conflict behaviors are more indicative of relationship problems than the mere presence or absence of conflict, these observational measures are some of the best tools a researcher can use to understand relationship conflict. In some studies, couples work with an experimenter to find a significant source of conflict to discuss (e.g., Wilson et al., 2017). In others, the partners each identify a source of conflict using the methods described in the “Sources of Conflict” section above. Then one or two of these topics is chosen (by the experimenter or by the couple) and the couples either discuss one topic or each select a topic and then take turns leading a conversation on their chosen topic. After the completion of the conversation, researchers can watch the videotapes and code for various behaviors, using systems such as SPAFF, coding which identifies specific emotions expressed in small intervals of time (Coan & Gottman, 2007) or more global coding systems which focus on broader sets of behaviors, such as asking coders to rate overall positive and negative affect. Both positive and negative affect during conflict interactions has been shown to predict later relationship quality and relationship dissolution (Gottman & Levenson, 2000). One of the strongest predictors of later relationship problems is the reciprocity of negative affect—in which partners respond to each other’s negative effect with more negative affect (as opposed to responding with positive affect, such as displaying humor or affection). Prior research by John Gottman (see Gottman & Silver, 2015) also indicates that displays of hostility, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling are particularly predictive of later relationship dissolution. Another common pattern that researchers and clinicians look for is demand-withdrawal (one partner demanding engagement/attention as the other partner withdraws; Heavey, Christensen, & Malamuth, 1995).

Author and Reviewer(s):

This summary was prepared by Amie M. Gordon, PhD, and reviewed by Harry T. Reis, PhD. If you have any comments on these measures, email Amie.Gordon@ucsf.edu. Version date: September 2018

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