The Importance of Couple-Coping in Decreasing Relationship Conflict

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It has long been known that people under stress are prone to angry outbursts and, consequently, increased conflict in their relationships. It is not surprising, therefore, that individual coping skills are critical to managing stress and maintaining healthy relationships. However, new research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships points out how dyadic coping, when both partners respond to stressors together in a cooperative way, can lead to less intense relationship conflict.

Dyadic coping is when partners respond supportively to one another when under stress. People with good dyadic coping skills tend to delegate tasks in a healthy way when under duress and tend to work together in dealing with external stress. The study looked at the impact of individual and dyadic coping as they relate to stress, anger, and verbal aggression. Results indicated that, while individual coping skills were relevant, they were less relevant than dyadic coping skills.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Guy Bodenmann of the University of Zurich, says that clinicians “should be more aware of the deleterious impact of stress on couples’ interaction and daily life and consider this aspect in working with couples in prevention work as well as in therapy. The findings that stress increases the likelihood of verbal aggression is important as it shows that often couples (even those who are usually able to communicate adequately with each other) may lose this competence when under stress.” He says that because dyadic coping is so important to healthy expressions of anger, it is important to recognize that “strengthening couples’ coping may be a promising and important focus in improving the couples’ functioning.”

Dr. Bodenmann says that the primary message of this study is that “understanding stress, in one partner or the other, might provide important information for making relationship improvements. People enter relationships hoping for compassion and understanding and those relationships suffer a great deal when one or both partners engage in anger and aggression. Containing and eliminating angry outbursts, especially when they become physical, is one of the first steps that a person can take to improve a relationship.”

By Ryan C. Martin

Five Questions with Dr. Eric Dahlen

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Dr. Eric Dahlen is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi. He also directs their in-house training clinic, where he has set up an anger management program to serve community adults and college students, staff, and faculty.  He has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Colorado Sstate University and has been studying anger for about 13 years.  You can learn more about Dr. Dahlen at his website: 

1.  What motivated you to start studying anger in the first place?

When I started graduate school, I thought I wanted to study suicide. After completing my master’s thesis on the role of gender and context on attitudes toward suicidal behavior, I was ready for a change. I heard wonderful things about Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher from my peers, and so I approached him about working with him on anger. It turned out to be a great fit, both in terms of the subject and with him as a major professor. I credit him with sparking my interest in anger and cannot imagine a better mentor

2.  What would you say is the most important research you have done on anger?

I have certainly enjoyed my work on mapping the correlates of general anger and driving anger. However, when I think about importance in terms of overall impact, I have a feeling that some of my most recent work on enhancing treatment motivation among anger management clients may prove to be among the most important. This is still in the early phases. We have developed and tested one brief motivational enhancement intervention aimed at college students. Initial results were promising, but more extensive tests are needed. We have also been working on a similar approach for community adults. My hope is that we will eventually be able to provide clinicians with a 1-2 session approach, suitable for individual or group delivery, that will help engage clients and reduce attrition.

3.  What do you think are the most important questions that anger researchers have yet to answer?

There are many important ones that remain unanswered, and I suppose that it part of the appeal in working on anger. One that I have been thinking about lately concerns prevention. We have learned a great deal about the treatment of clinically dysfunctional anger over the past 20 years, but information about prevention and early intervention strategies is scarce. So many of the clients we see in anger management do not enter treatment until they have experienced many negative consequences of their anger, some of which are irreversible. I am intrigued by the possibility of helping people enter treatment earlier, as well as trying to prevent problem anger from developing in the first place.

4.  What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about anger?

There are many misconceptions about anger, not only among the general public but also among those in the helping professions who really should know better. The two I encounter most often concern gender differences and the catharsis myth.

Many people seem to be convinced that anger is primarily a male problem and that women do not experience dysfunctional anger. In part, this misconception is likely based on a failure to clearly distinguish between anger and aggression, but I see it result in anger problems being minimized in women. Research shows that women and men do not differ in the propensity to experience angry feelings and that any differences in how they express anger tend to be quite small. I think it is important to recognize that problem anger can lead to the same problems for women as it does for men and that women are every bit as deserving of effective treatments.

The catharsis myth refers to the belief, unfortunately popular among some in the helping professions, that anger must be vented. Poorly informed therapists ask their clients to punch pillows, hit objects with foam-covered bats, and the like. Not only is this approach based on outdated theories of the human mind, but there is considerable evidence that such methods may make the anger worse and increase the likelihood of aggressive behavior. Based on the potential for harm here, I think this is a particularly important misconception about which we should work to educate the public.

5.  If there was one thing you would like people to understand about anger, what would it be?

I think it is important for people to understand that anger is a normal emotion that is not something we should seek to abolish. At mild to moderate levels, anger can be quite advantageous. It alerts us to problems in our environment and facilitates important forms of social communication. It is important to think about anger management as a process of empowering people to gain greater control over their anger and not as a way to eliminate angry feelings.

Forgive and Forget? Maybe It’s Not That Simple

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Just about everyone would admit that at one time or another, they have been provoked in a way that made them want revenge.  In fact, according to new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it is much easier to be consumed by thoughts of revenge than it is to forgive.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Ben Wilkowski, said he was motivated to do this study because his prior research showed that “individuals low in trait anger recruit cognitive control resources in hostile situations”.  In other words, people who become angry more often are worse at employing cognitive control strategies; what Dr. Wilkowski defines as the resources needed to “override inappropriate thoughts, feelings, and desires”.  The current study, then, was designed to explore more specifically how cognitive control in hostile situations would predict aggressiveness and forgiveness.  As described by Dr. Wilkowski, “participants who showed evidence of recruiting cognitive control resources within hostile situations were more capable of setting aside the desire for revenge and of forgiving the person who angered them.  By doing so, these individuals became less angry and less aggressive.”

The primary message of the study to Dr. Wilkowski is that forgiveness isn’t easy.  He argues that “when someone has wronged you, it is all too easy to be consumed by the desire for revenge….   In the same way that balancing a checkbook or sticking to a strict diet requires psychological effort, so does forgiveness.”

By Ryan C. Martin