Do You (or Your Partner) Always Need to Have the Last Word?

The last word may not always be the best word when you argue with your partner.

Whether it’s in an angry exchange of text messages, a face-to-face dispute, or a shouting match over the phone, it’s natural to want to be the one who gets in that last, definitive word. However, during the heat of an argument, that last word may be the worst- not the best- way to close off debate. Perhaps we’ve all been too heavily influenced by mental images from on-screen romances in which the offended partner provides the perfect retort before making a dramatic exit and slamming the door. The partner who’s left behind comes to the stunning realization that he or she is in the wrong, and then contritely seeks forgiveness.

In real life, arguments rarely follow this nice and neat, scripted pattern. Conflict can be messy, hurtful, and damaging to the relationship, but particularly so when partners play a one-upmanship game during the battle. You figure that if you can just come up with that phenomenal statement of the “truth,” you can set your partner straight. Unfortunately, strategizing during a romantic dispute can only erode feelings of trust and good faith. You may be “right,” but you’ve only caused your partner to feel that you care less about the relationship and more about scoring the game-winning point.

There is ample relationship research to show that destructive conflict resolution is the most damaging way to handle the inevitable differences that arise between people who otherwise love each other. Wanting to have the last word is very much related to the attack mode mentality central to destructive conflict resolution in which you take on your partner rather than the difference in viewpoints the two of you have. Conflict doesn’t have to be damaging at all to a relationship and, according to recent research, it may even help keep the relationship healthy and vital.

University of California Berkeley psychologists Amie Gordon and Serena Chen (2016) decided to examine the factors that allow couples to argue without destroying their relationship quality or perhaps even improving it. Their central thesis is that because “Misunderstanding between partners often lies at the heart of conflicts,” then “conflict between romantic partners is detrimental to relationship quality only when people do not feel understood by their partners” (p. 240). That feeling of being understood, then, not only reduces the chances you’ll argue with your partner, but can mitigate against the negative feelings that accompany a fight.

Following from Gordon and Chen’s main hypothesis, then, focusing on how you game the argument will detract from your ability to hear what your partner is saying which, in turn, shows that you understand your partner. Having the last word could make you feel temporarily better, but because your partner will feel shot down, he or she will emerge unhappier and less trusting of you as the two of you eventually try to restore the equilibrium that preceded the argument.

Gordon and Chen investigated their hypothesis through a series of seven studies, ranging from correlational to experimental, in which they assessed whether partners who felt more understood could emerge from a conflict retaining their previous feelings of satisfaction. Rather than rely on the typical college student sample alone (although they did for one of the studies), they sampled from a nationally recruited range of adults in long-term relationships.

Their approach to understanding focused on the way that partners felt during conflict. Although the behavioral approach of counting types of communication used in many studies of conflict resolution has certain advantages, it fails to capture the perceived feelings of being understood that Gordon and Chen hypothesized to be so central to successful conflict resolution. In other words, a researcher may count the number of negative statements you hurl at your partner, but if your partner doesn’t take them seriously, do they really count as attack? On the other hand, if your partner knows just how to jab at you, the researcher may not even record certain statements as accusatory or derogatory. That “last word” may qualify as one of these successfully camouflaged attacks. It doesn’t sound bad to an outsider, but it cuts you to the core.

The most intriguing study in the Berkeley series involved creating, experimentally, the feeling of being understood during an argument. Participants were asked to imagine themselves in a fight with their partner under one of two conditions. In the “understood” condition, they were told to “imagine that you and your partner are having a fight about [a topic identified by the participant]. During this fight, we would like you to imagine that your partner is able to understand your thoughts, feelings, and point of view. That is, you feel understood by your partner. Please take a moment to imagine this fight. Picture where you are, what you and your partner are saying, how you are feeling.” In the other condition, participants were told to imagine their partner did not understand them.

Across the entire set of studies, the results consistently pointed to that sense of perceived understanding as counteracting the potentially negative effects of conflict. Indeed, Gordon and Chen maintain that perceived understanding becomes the buffer that allows partners to argue without feeling hopeless about their relationship. Perhaps this is why, when you see couples staying together despite what looks to you like a miserable relationship, you’re not getting the full picture. They may bicker constantly all day long but they can still go to bed feeling content with each other.

-Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD

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