A recent study has shown that asking yourself two questions during a fight might just be the key to remaining level headed and maintaining much needed perspective, which results in stronger relationships and better conflict resolution.
These are: “Where do I see this relationship in one year?” and “How would my best friend handle this issue?” A new study suggests that taking a step back to gain emotional distance during heated conflicts over typical issues couples argue about most—such as finances—can provide perspective that allows them to resolve problems with better reasoning and more forgiveness.
The study, conducted by Alex Huynh and Igor Grossmann, PhD, from Waterloo University, with Daniel Yang, PhD, of Yale University, examined the benefits of maintaining a future perspective during relational conflicts by asking study participants to recall a recent conflict with a loved one or close friend. One participant group was told to think about their feelings about the conflict in the present, while another group was directed to consider how they might feel about the conflict one year in the future. The researchers examined the participants’ written responses for the use of pronouns such as I, me, she, and he. The use of pronouns showed the participants’ focus on the behavior of those involved in the conflict as well as their own focus on their feelings related to the incident. The responses were also studied for helpful reasoning strategies, including forgiveness and feeling more positive about the relationship.
The team of researchers found that study participants viewed their relationship in a more positive way with increased forgiveness when they envisioned the relationship one year in the future.
How can couples work to gain a future perspective during heated arguments? Dr. Grossmann suggests that couples try to avoid getting into heated conflicts in the first place (easier said than done). “The main issue here is the awareness that you’re in an emotional situation in the first place,” he says. “Quite often, when one is in the heat of the moment the insight of being in an emotional situation is lacking, because he or she is too focused on the present.”
Dr. Grossman is working on a solution to change this with wearable tehcnology. “For instance, it is theoretically possible to use physiological fitness trackers like Fitbit, Apple Watch, or others, to estimate one’s stress level and get customized reminders about taking a step back or other strategies.” These ideas are in early stages of development, he notes. Dr. Grossmann also recommends that couples not only envision their future together during conflicts, but also utilize a third-person perspective in order to consider how someone else might respond in their exact scenario.
For couples that often find themselves on the losing end of a battle with flaring tempers, this study brings hope that there is not only important research being conducted to help them, but also that strategies are being discovered and developed that can be useful during the moments couples need them most.
Lead researcher Huynh was motivated to conduct this study out of a desire to understand the way conflict in relationships is processed. He explains, “My interest in this research came from trying to understand what cognitive strategies people might adopt to help keep their relationships healthy and stable in the face of conflict.” Past research has highlighted the benefits of taking a step back and not allowing ourselves to get too caught up in our emotions during a conflict, so he wanted to understand how thinking about the future might serve a similar function. “As it turns out, future-oriented thinking not only helps people maintain healthy relationships, it helps them think about their relationship in a way that fosters growth and positivity toward their partners,” he says.