Long-Distance Relationships and Conflict

By: Caroline Rulon

Long-distance relationships are hard, but why make them harder than they need to be?

Research shows that certain tactics and approaches to long-distance communication can make all the difference in relational satisfaction.

By adjusting how you approach conflict and identifying your goals before initiating an argument, you may just find yourself in a relationship that lasts a lifetime.

I was in a long-distance relationship when I started college. My boyfriend lived in Florida while I was in Nashville. It was an extremely difficult transition and we went through the ringer learning how to effectively communicate our problems while 750 miles apart.

I found myself texting him long paragraphs late at night about the same arguments, yet never being open about these arguments in person or on video chat. These repetitive arguments always wreaked havoc on our relationship, as we were tired and willing to say anything over the asynchronous channel of text.

Until now, I never understood why texting versus video chatting made such a difference in the outcome of the argument.

Sun Kyong Lee and other communications researchers from the University of Oklahoma conducted a study wanting to know how people use various communication channels for different kinds of conflicts, and how that relates to their overall satisfaction in the relationships. The study was published in The Electronic Journal of Communication.

They predicted that more hostile conflicts will lead to less satisfaction in the relationship. Additionally, they expected the type of communication channel they used—including text, phone call, email, face-to-face and video chat—to be associated with the style in which conflict was initiated.

These styles included hostile, volatile or validating.

After surveying 385 participants, the researchers found that email was correlated with a hostile conflict style, and phone calls resulted in a mix of volatile and hostile conflict styles. Face-to-face conflict was associated with avoidance, as couples do not want to argue in the little time they have together. Video chat resulted in the most validating conflict style.

Researchers concluded that because of the asynchronicity of email and the ability to take time to craft an aggressive message, long-distance relationships that had a more hostile conflict style used email for conflict initiation. In contrast, video chat was the best mode of communication for conflict, as it is synchronous and the couple can make each other feel heard and validated through nonverbal messages, like smiles and nodding.

My boyfriend and I eventually found this information to be true. Any time we video chatted to have an argument, it was always much more civil and led to positive solutions rather than a night of frustration and tears.

If you are in a long-distance relationship, wait until your partner can video chat and you may find you both feel much more validated through each other’s nonverbals and synchronous cues.

If you only adjust your conflict initiation channel, though, you will most likely continue to find yourself in hurtful arguments. Considering the goals you have for an argument is just as important for long-distance conflict management.

As many of you in relationships probably know, you may fight about the same topic over and over. Researchers call these serial arguments, and they can be about anything, from finances to independence to going out.

Ioana Cionea and other professors from the University of Oklahoma wanted to know how the goals behind a couple’s serial arguments might predict the specific tactics used to accomplish these goals. They also sought to learn how goals and serial argument tactics are correlated with relational satisfaction and perceived resolvability of the problem.

In a study published in the Southern Communication Journal, Cionea and her colleagues surveyed 539 participants and found that couples in long-distance relationships that used integrative tactics, such as openness and positivity, reported greater satisfaction in their relationship and perceived arguments to be more resolvable.

They found that when couples start an argument positively, with important goals being addressed, the argument tended to be constructive rather than hurtful. The researchers also found that avoidance can be helpful for a couple to cool off before initiating the serial argument, and distributive tactics—such as blaming, selfishness and manipulation—were used with the intent to change or hurt the partner.

This information is useful for long-distance couples because it emphasizes the importance of evaluating your goals in addressing the serial issue before actually speaking to your partner. The goals in mind for an argument will determine how quickly it is resolved and affect relational satisfaction as a whole.

If you want relational progress, try using integrative language. Both parties need to enter into the argument wanting mutual understanding and positive relational expression. If you and your partner commit to being open to each other’s opinions, empathizing and searching for a solution that satisfies both parties, you may find more happiness and fulfillment in your relationship.

Conversely, if you find yourself getting caught up in negative serial arguments, the argument initiator may want to hurt you, change you or break up. Figuring out what you want before initiating a conflict can mitigate damage and ultimately break the serial argument cycle.

So, when you and your long-distance partner are having issues, think about how you are going to address those issues and what you want to accomplish. If you are looking for a longer-lasting relationship, try video calling your partner and being open to their opinions.

Evaluating your goals before addressing your partner and utilizing nonverbals may lead to a solution that makes you much happier in your relationship.

Cover image: Olivia Heller/The New School Free Press

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