One Reason Couples May Have Trouble Making Up After a Fight

Showing emotional commitment is the best way for couples to make up after an argument, according to a new study. But—surprise, surprise—the researchers found that men and women tend to do this differently and expect different things from each other, as well.

The study, published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, found that women appreciate it when male partners spend time with them after a conflict, ask forgiveness or show remorse, and even shed a few tears. Men, on the other hand, consider kind gestures and sexual favors the best ways to apologize.

As stereotypical as they sound, these results may help couples—heterosexual couples, at least—understand each other better, say the study authors, and may help reconciliation after arguments go more smoothly.

To examine male and female responses to relationship conflict, researchers from Bucknell University first asked 38 women and 36 men to write down a few specific actions that someone of their gender was likely to do when attempting to “make up” after a fight with his or her partner. Their responses were then given to another group of men and women, who were asked to rate which methods they thought would be most effective.

As suspected, men were more likely than women to express that having a partner offer sex or nice gestures would be an effective way to make peace and get back to normal after a squabble. (This is consistent with previous studies that show that men “are more likely to stay with partners who are sexually accessible,” the authors wrote.)

Women, on the other hand, considered it more effective for a partner to be emotionally available, rather than physically—and they thought it was more important for partners to simply spend time together after a fight than to have sex.

Of course, these are generalizations, and not every male-female relationship will exhibit these dynamics. And on a more positive note, the authors do note that strategies like communication, apologizing, offering forgiveness, and compromising were all rated more highly across both genders than less constructive methods (like drinking alcohol, ignoring each other, or pretending the fight never happened).

But the study does support the researchers’ hypothesis that, from an evolutionary perspective, men and women look for different types of reassurances after a rocky patch. And couples may be smart to keep that in mind, they say.

If one partner is trying to offer an olive branch, for example, but can’t figure out why the other partner isn’t interested in reconciling, “it could be because their reconciliation actions do not tap into the partner’s basic desires regarding expected emotional or sexual access from them,” lead author T. Joel Wade, PhD, professor of psychology at Bucknell University, told Real Simple via email.

In fact, Wade says, it would be smart to think closely about what one’s partner is really looking for—and to make a real effort to provide them with that. “Good/successful relationships involve being in tune with a partner’s needs and desires,” he says, “and making compromises if necessary.”

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