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Resolve Conflict by Day's End For Long-Lasting Benefits, Study Says

couple discussing a conflict at a diner

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study revealed that resolving arguments by day’s end could have a positive impact on physical and mental health.
  • Even minor stressors could contribute to negative health outcomes, leading to serious conditions.
  • The ability to confront these stressors rather than avoid them could lead to health benefits.

Close relationships are often prone to conflict and stress. This can be exacerbated by outside stressors that can put on a strain on both individuals and relationships.

A survey of Verywell readers found that some couples capitalized on the increased time they spent together during the challenges of 2020. Some experienced improvements in their relationships or established new ways to connect. About one quarter (27%) of couples reported thriving.

However, the same number reported they had struggled with their relationships. They named increased arguments and disagreements as contributing factors to the tension.

Each household has its own way of dealing with disagreements, but a study out of Oregon State University suggests that resolving matters quickly could have lasting health benefits.

The research, published in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, revealed that when conflicts are resolved, the stress related to those experiences is diminished and can even disappear altogether. Because stress has startling impacts on overall health, these findings highlight the importance of confronting disagreements head-on.

The Benefits of Conflict Resolution

Previous research underlines that avoided conflicts are correlated with lower rates of self-reported health and that partners who avoid conflict even tend to live shorter lives. When conflicts go unresolved, it can cause physical pain and discomfort (much like aching encountered during loneliness or rejection from a loved one) and a variety of serious health outcomes.

For this new study, Dakota Witzel and Robert Stawski of Oregon State University used data from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS 2): Daily Stress Project, 2004-2009 to compare self-reported responses from 2,022 participants about their choices to confront or avoid conflicts and how these behaviors impacted their short-term emotions, as well as their perceived stress the day after the conflict.

The pair found that those who reported having resolved the conflict the same day it occurred experienced fewer negative emotions and a lower decline in positive emotions. This means that their positive emotions remained more stable and negative emotions did not emerge as readily as those who avoided confronting conflicts.

This same group of participants did not experience any prolonged negative emotions on the day following the argument. In contrast, those who avoided arguments experienced both negative emotions on the day of the conflict and lingering stress the day after.

The pair believes that conflict resolution aids the body in emotional downregulation, the process that reduces the intensity of emotional experiences. This crucial process helps to reset the body after heightened emotions during a conflict—a process that conflict avoidance doesn’t promote. When the body doesn't engage with that process, it will remain in a heightened state of arousal.

The inability to regulate emotions and difficulties with downregulation has been linked with negative coping skills and lifestyle changes. For example, those who cannot leave a heightened state of arousal might experience decreased sleep, changes in eating habits, increased uses of alcohol and smoking, behaviors and experiences that can lead to negative health outcomes and chronic disease.

Behavioral changes aren't the only cause of negative health outcomes associated with stress. Stress actually changes the chemical reactions in the body. For example, heart rate and blood pressure are elevated when encountering a stressor. This is part of a natural warning system that informs the brain about impending dangers. But constant elevations cause wear and tear on the cardiovascular system which increases risk for strokes, heart attacks, and chronic disease.

How Relationships Contribute to Stress

Stressors refer to a wide variety of experiences that our bodies perceive as especially challenging. Our body enters a heightened state of arousal when chemical changes are triggered by an external event (or sometimes internal events, like illness). Arguments, disagreements, and other interpersonal conflicts can be perceived as stressors, and they can never be completely avoided in relationships.

Years of research demonstrate that stress negatively impacts physical and mental health. It can contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, increased infection rates, shifts in sex drive and menstruation, and other physical changes and ailments, in addition to mental health concerns such as difficulty concentrating, emotional responses, or mood swings.

Even stressors that seem small or unrelated to one another at the moment contribute to chronic stress as they linger or compile over time.

Dakota Witzel, PhD Candidate

Daily stressors—specifically the minor, small inconveniences that we have throughout the day—even those have lasting impacts on mortality and things like inflammation and cognitive function.

— Dakota Witzel, PhD Candidate

Combined with other increasing stressors related to the pandemic and life’s more typical burdens or worries, stress levels soared in the spring of 2020, with some reporting that they’d felt more stress during that time than during the entire previous year.

Seemingly minor annoyances like someone else’s dishes piled in the sink or disagreements over other daily living habits might not seem like factors that negatively impact physical well-being, but these interpersonal conflicts create daily stressors. The compounded stress of daily life contributes to chronic stress.

How to Resolve a Conflict

It's impossible to completely cut out all stress, but it is important to eliminate unnecessary stress. The ability to confront interpersonal stressors rather than avoid them could lead to health benefits by reducing overall stress and improving relationships.

Robert Stawski, PhD

Some people are more reactive than other people, but the extent to which you can tie off the stress so it’s not having this gnawing impact on you over the course of the day or a few days will help minimize the potential long-term impact.

— Robert Stawski, PhD

Avoiding arguments does not resolve conflicts. Instead, the conflicts linger and create more stress. Instead of "sleeping on it," try not to go to bed without resolving conflicts from the day. Even simple conversations to straighten out seemingly minor arguments will benefit your health and relationships.

In order to confront conflicts effectively—rather than create additional stress during a confrontation—it’s important to avoid problematic patterns of communication. Best practices include seeking solutions-focused dialogues, promoting active listening, clarifying needs and intentions, and sharing openly about personal feelings.

The way you pursue resolution is key. Be clear about boundaries and hold others accountable while also committing to making the compromises they need to thrive, too. If you’re struggling to talk about the conflicts you encounter, family counseling or mediation might help you talk about the issues and develop healthier communication patterns with those you live with.

It's just as important to recognize that not all relationships are healthy enough for safe and appropriate communication, and you might need to prioritize talking to a professional about your experiences rather than attempting to resolve the conflict with some individuals on your own.

What This Means For You

It is impossible to completely avoid stress, but it's important to learn how the stress you encounter is impacting you. Relationship stress could contribute to chronic illness and other negative health outcomes. To ease the toll that stress takes on your health, try to resolve conflicts before you head to bed. In addition to improving your relationship, it might also improve your physical and mental health.

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. McEwen BS. Neurobiological and systemic effects of chronic stress. Chronic Stress. 2017;1:247054701769232. doi:10.1177/2470547017692328

  4. Breslau J, Finucane ML, Locker AR, Baird MD, Roth EA, Collins RL. A longitudinal study of psychological distress in the United States before and during the COVID-19 pandemicPrev Med. 2021;143:106362. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106362