Contrary to what the movies would have you believe, romantic relationships invariably involve conflict. It may seem like arguing with your partner signals the end of a relationship but new research findings suggest it could help couples bond better.
Scientists at the University of Geneva studied the effects of third-party mediation on conflict resolution in couples. The study recruited 36 heterosexual couples and asked them to go through a mediated or non-mediated discussion about a conflict in their relationship.
The research published in the journal Cortex involved providing couples behavioral questionnaires and performing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) before and after the discussion. The researchers concluded that mediation by a third party significantly improved the result of a confrontation between couples. Moreover, it was observed that mediation resulted in increased neural activity in the reward circuit.
A higher level of satisfaction was reported in couples put through active mediation. The mediation group also showed increased neural activity in the nucleus accumbens which plays an important role in the reward circuit.
The study is the first of its kind successfully demonstrating the benefits of mediation for couples in conflict. The study takes research in the area further by identifying the neuronal phenomena associated with mediation.
Olga Klimecki, from the Swiss Centre of Effective Sciences and UNIGE’S Faculty of Psychology, comments, “We know from numerous studies that thinking about romantic love and your romantic partner activates the so-called reward circuit in the brain, which is associated with feelings of pleasure and motivation.”
“Until now, however, we didn’t know the impact that couple conflict, and mediation by a third party, could have on this activation. It was precisely to fill this gap that we devised our study,” she concludes.
The researchers kept in mind to choose couples who had been together for a year in a monogamous relationship based on their own claims. The participants were also asked to check off a list comprising of 15 standard subjects such as in-laws, sexuality, finances, chores, time spent together which often lead to conflict with their partner.
The participants were then invited to start a discussion about one of the subjects. The discussion took off as a little restrained but invariable always resulted in conflict between the two partners. The session spanning 1 hour was overlooked by a professional mediator. The mediator intervened in the dispute in half of the cases while remains passive in the other half.
The emotional state of the participants was measured by a behavioral questionnaire before and after the session. Brain activity of the one of the partner was noted before and after conflict by showing them images of their partner or a stranger.
The data obtained from the study suggests that couples who believed the mediation to be beneficial were better at resolving their conflicts. They were also more satisfied as the discussion proceeded and had few grievances left after the session culminated.
Halima Rafi, François Bogacz, David Sander, Olga Klimecki. Impact of couple conflict and mediation on how romantic partners are seen: An fMRI study. Cortex, 2020; 130: 302 DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2020.04.036