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Conflict: not too much, not too little - when to get real & problem solve in close relationships

Yesterday, in the blog "Conflict: not too much, not too little - the importance of assertiveness in close relationships", I looked at a series of four research papers from James McNulty's lab at the University of Tennessee on the importance of appropriate assertiveness rather than excessive forgiveness when a couple relationship is significantly dysfunctional. McNulty argues that kindness, hopefulness and turning the other cheek may well be excellent advice in basically well functioning relationships, but when there are real problems that need to be addressed a good dose of direct and persistent assertiveness comes in very handy. Today I'd like to extend this argument from the mixed benefits of forgiveness to three papers on mixed benefits of optimism, one on the mixed benefits of self-compassion, and one on the importance of direct problem solving. 

So first the three papers on caution with optimism:

McNulty & Karney (2004). "Positive expectations in the early years of marriage: should couples expect the best or brace for the worst?"  The current study examined whether the effects of positive expectations on changes in marital satisfaction over the first 4 years of marriage were moderated by the nature of spouses' interaction behaviors and relationship attributions. Consistent with predictions, when spouses' skills were most positive, positive expectations predicted more stable satisfaction over time whereas less positive expectations predicted steeper declines. Alternatively, when spouses' skills were most negative, positive expectations predicted steeper declines in satisfaction over time whereas less positive expectations predicted more stable satisfaction. Thus, in contrast to the idea that expectations in the early years of marriage exert main effects on satisfaction, the current findings suggest that the effects of expectations interact with the skills partners bring to their relationships.

McNulty et al. (2008). "Benevolent cognitions as a strategy of relationship maintenance: "don't sweat the small stuff".... But it is not all small stuff."  To maintain intimate relationships in the face of negative experiences, many recommend cognitive strategies that minimize the implications of those experiences for global evaluations of the relationship. But are such strategies always adaptive? Suggesting otherwise, 2 longitudinal studies spanning the 1st 4 years of 251 new marriages revealed that the effects of benevolent cognitions on relationship development depended on the initial levels of negativity in the relationship. Cross-sectionally, the tendency to make positive attributions or otherwise disengage global evaluations of the relationship from negative experiences was associated with higher levels of satisfaction in marriages characterized by more frequent negative behavior and more severe problems. Longitudinally, in contrast, such strategies only demonstrated benefits to healthier marriages, whereas they predicted steeper declines in satisfaction among spouses in more troubled marriages by allowing marital problems to worsen over time. These findings highlight the limits of purely cognitive theories of relationship maintenance and suggest that widely recommended strategies for improving relationships may harm vulnerable couples by weakening their motivations to address their problems directly.

O'Mara et al. (2011). "Positively biased appraisals in everyday life: When do they benefit mental health and when do they harm it?"  To promote optimal mental health, is it best to evaluate negative experiences accurately or in a positively biased manner? In an attempt to reconcile inconsistent prior research addressing this question, we predicted that the tendency to form positively biased appraisals of negative experiences may reduce the motive to address those experiences and thereby lead to poorer mental health in the context of negative experiences that are controllable and severe but lead to better mental health in the context of controllable negative experiences that are less severe by promoting positive feelings without invoking serious consequences from unaddressed problems. In 2 longitudinal studies, individuals in new marriages were interviewed separately about their ongoing stressful experiences, and their own appraisals of those experiences were compared with those of the interviewers. Across studies, spouses' tendencies to form positively biased appraisals of their stressful experiences predicted fewer depressive symptoms over the subsequent 4 years among individuals judged to be facing relatively mild experiences but more depressive symptoms among individuals judged to be facing relatively severe experiences. Furthermore, in Study 2, these effects were mediated by changes in those experiences, such that the interaction between the tendency to form positively biased appraisals of stressful experiences and the objectively rated severity of initial levels of those experiences directly predicted changes in those experiences, which in turn accounted for changes in depressive symptoms. These findings suggest that cognitive biases are not inherently positive or negative; their implications for mental health depend on the context in which they occur.

Mm ... when the going gets tough, the message seems to be don't daydream - problem solve - and be careful with the self-compassion too:

Baker and McNulty (2011). "Self-compassion and relationship maintenance: The moderating roles of conscientiousness and gender."  Should intimates respond to their interpersonal mistakes with self-criticism or with self-compassion? Although it is reasonable to expect self-compassion to benefit relationships by promoting self-esteem, it is also reasonable to expect self-compassion to hurt relationships by removing intimates' motivation to correct their interpersonal mistakes. Two correlational studies, 1 experiment, and 1 longitudinal study demonstrated that whether self-compassion helps or hurts relationships depends on the presence versus absence of dispositional sources of the motivation to correct interpersonal mistakes. Among men, the implications of self-compassion were moderated by conscientiousness. Among men high in conscientiousness, self-compassion was associated with greater motivation to correct interpersonal mistakes (Studies 1 and 3), observations of more constructive problem-solving behaviors (Study 2), reports of more accommodation (Study 3), and fewer declines in marital satisfaction that were mediated by decreases in interpersonal problem severity (Study 4); among men low in conscientiousness, self-compassion was associated with these outcomes in the opposite direction. Among women, in contrast, likely because women are inherently more motivated than men to preserve their relationships for cultural and/or biological reasons, self-compassion was never harmful to the relationship. Instead, women's self-compassion was positively associated with the motivation to correct their interpersonal mistakes (Study 1) and changes in relationship satisfaction (Study 4), regardless of conscientiousness. Accordingly, theoretical descriptions of the implications of self-promoting thoughts for relationships may be most complete to the extent that they consider the presence versus absence of other sources of the motivation to correct interpersonal mistakes.

And finally a further study on the value in confronting genuine difficulties:

McNulty and Russell (2010). "When "negative" behaviors are positive: a contextual analysis of the long-term effects of problem-solving behaviors on changes in relationship satisfaction."  How should partners discuss the problems that arise over the course of their intimate relationships? Prior studies have provided inconsistent answers to this question, with some suggesting that partners benefit by avoiding negative behaviors and others suggesting that partners benefit by engaging in negative behaviors. The 2 longitudinal studies of newlyweds described here reconcile these inconsistent findings by revealing that direct negative problem-solving behaviors interact with the severity of the problems couples face in their relationships to account for changes in relationship satisfaction. Whereas spouses' tendencies to blame, command, and reject their partners predicted steeper declines in their own marital satisfaction when exhibited in the context of relationships facing only minor problems, those same behaviors predicted more stable satisfaction in relationships facing more severe problems. Subsequent analyses revealed that changes in the severity of the problems themselves mediated these effects. By contrast, indirect negative communications were associated with stably lower levels of satisfaction regardless of problem severity. The current findings join others in highlighting the theoretical importance of accounting for the relational context when examining the implications of various interpersonal processes.

Fascinating and helpful research ...

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