Couple fighting
Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation
Lisa Diamond's research associate keeps her voice deliberately neutral as she talks through a microphone to a couple in the next room. The man, Tim, slumped on a couch, and the woman, Stacey, sitting upright on a wing chair, have been wired with monitors that measure their heart rate and respiration, as well as the flow of electrical currents across their skin—all of which are indicators of nervous system activity. An unobtrusive video camera records the couple's every twitch and flitting smile. Earlier, they were shown a series of innocuous photographs of landscapes while their baseline pulse rates and other measurements were recorded. Now they're being asked to argue.

"The source of conflict that Tim chose," the researcher is telling them, "is 'You treat me like you're my mom.'" At this, Stacey, an elegant 30-year-old operations manager for a nonprofit in Salt Lake City, stiffens. Tim, her tall, lean 29-year-old photographer boyfriend, smiles awkwardly, abashed. With his slouchy T-shirt, clunky black glasses, and floppy hair, he's a study in nerdy chic. He looks at the floor. "Tim, you should explain what you mean by this particular conflict," the researcher continues, "and then both of you try to resolve it. You'll have four minutes."

"Um—" Tim says, by way of starting.

"What do you mean by that?" Stacey cuts in.

And they're off.

For the past year, Diamond, the associate professor of psychology at the University of Utah in whose laboratory Stacey and Tim now snipe, has been studying how couples argue—specifically, studying the measurable changes that occur in their bodies as they fight. It's a tricky business, though not because she has difficulty eliciting spats. (That part is almost comically easy: Just ask each half of the pair to write down a gripe against the other.) The tougher part is getting the couples to stop squabbling after the researchers have gathered their data.

And the deepest challenge is teasing out the complex interplays between wrath and respiration, heartache and heart rate. Diamond is trying to quantify the role the body and nervous system play in relationships and conflict. In the process, she's uncovering lessons—some practical, some poetic—about how small gestures can lessen the damage of big arguments, and about how even a minor reconsideration of what's really happening between you can tamp down, metaphorically and physiologically, all that furious heat.

Keep Reading: How men and women experience a relationship differently
"Men and women typically experience the same relationship very differently," Diamond tells me as we sit in her laboratory watching Tim and Stacey spar. The author of Sexual Fluidity, a study of female desire, Diamond is a small woman with darting energy and masses of black hair. "We know from some large epidemiological studies that the long-term health benefits of marriage traditionally have been greater for men than for women," she says. "Presumably this has been because women are often the relationship maintainers. They're the ones putting in much of the work. Men have gotten the benefits of a relationship without as much of the heavy lifting."

In the small room where Tim and Stacey are arguing, the atmosphere has turned icy. "It's not like I wrote down the worst problem I have," Tim is saying, his eyes downcast. "I mean, um, you're bossy."

"Yes, I'm bossy," Stacey snaps back. "I like to control my situation. I offer suggestions. It's not like I'm being a mom. Tell me one time I acted like a mom."

"Um, I don't know," Tim says. "My mind is blank. I... " His voice trails off.

"The classic pattern you see is the demand-withdrawal dynamic," Diamond whispers, referring to a pattern in which the woman makes demands and the man, in response, shuts down. It turns out that each behavior has striking corollaries within the body. "The man usually finds it calming to withdraw from the conflict," Diamond says. His heart rate drops. His breathing slows. Yet, as he pulls away, "the woman watches in growing frustration. She's thinking, 'Why won't he talk to me?'" Her heart rate rises. Her breathing becomes shallow and short. "The more he withdraws, the more physiologically aroused she becomes."

If you're the demanding partner in this dynamic, your best response at this point is surprisingly simple: Listen to your heart, literally. Monitor your physiology. If your heart is racing, your breathing ragged, your eyes ablaze, step back and take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Calm down. This small action can be surprisingly consequential, even profound. "The body is so fundamentally involved in our relationships," Diamond says. "But few of us pay attention to it."

Your own body's cues aren't the only ones worth paying attention to, however. The most important small gesture you can make toward your partner is to empathize. Consider that the very behavior making you nuts—his mumbling and emotional retreat—is calming for him, Diamond says. "It's quite possible that he can't respond in any other way. Our conflict styles develop over a lifetime." So don't raise your voice and demand that he continue engaging in that persistent fight about money or housework or friendships or sex (topics that recur constantly in Diamond's work). Let him withdraw.

Keep Reading: What to do after you've calmed down
Then, when you're calmer, go after him with a smile. "Humor is very important in defusing tension," Diamond says. She describes one couple whose argument in the lab had grown extremely heated. A lab assistant intervened, suggesting they move on to the second chosen topic of conflict. And that topic was, as Diamond recalls, "the neighbor's cow." The two combatants looked at each other, dissolved into giggles, and left, minutes afterward, arm in arm. "We never found out what that source of conflict was supposed to be about," Diamond says. Whatever it was, it didn't make them angry anymore. It made them laugh. It restored their shared affection. "It's always reassuring when we see couples start to laugh."

Back in the observation room, Tim is squirming on the couch and Stacey's stare is glacial. The lab assistant, directing the interaction toward resolution, suggests that they tell each other something positive.

Tim looks at Stacey and smiles. "I think we have fun most of the time," he says. "We make each other laugh."

Stacey's pursed lips slowly relax. "Well, there was the time you wore that really tight pair of underwear." She smiles, too. "That was funny."

The research associate unhooks them from the various machines. They rise, take each other's hands—another important small gesture—and leave.

"It would be interesting to hear the conversations between these couples in the car on the way home," Diamond says. Or maybe that's one small area in which science should leave well enough alone.

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