(Photo:Flickr/Sergio Vassio)

University of Kansas researchers say couples who are “in the zone” with rewarding, positive conversations are less likely to hold onto negative emotions and more likely to feel more satisfaction in their relationships.

“Whenever you get into a fight and you get amped up, it is typically more adaptive to let that go after the fight,” said lead researcher Brenda McDaniel. “If you ruminate and keep that anger, it can have negative mental and physical consequences. It’s better to have a nice downward recovery after conflict.”

For the study, 50 couples between the ages of 18 and 20 who were not engaged, married or living together and had been dating at least six months were asked to spend 20 minutes discussing a contentious topic that typically started an argument between them. Next, the couples spent 20 minutes talking about happy times in their relationship, such as their first date or first kiss. Throughout the experiment, the participants’ stress hormone levels were monitored:

“To see if a downward recovery occurred in couples, researchers examined levels of the stress hormone cortisol before the conflict discussion, after the conflict discussion and after the ‘happy times’ discussion. If the cortisol levels resembled an inverted V shape – low before the conflict discussion, high after the conflict discussion, and low again after the happier discussion – the person often reported higher relationship satisfaction and higher relationship closeness. Participants whose cortisol levels stayed high instead of coming back down after the happier discussion reported lower relationship satisfaction and less relationship closeness.”

In addition to recovery being associated with positive relationship outcomes, McDaniel said she and the researchers also saw recovery being related to the flow of conversation.

“Those individuals whose stress hormone levels remained high didn’t enter into that state of flow,” she said.

McDaniel compared this to being “in the zone” — when a person becomes so engaged with a certain activity that he or she loses track of time.

“A majority of the literature focuses on experiencing flow in a job or activity,” McDaniel said. “But our study examined how couples might experience flow during conversation.”

The study revealed that “engaging in flow is often associated with positive characteristics of relationships.” The researchers found that even if only one person in the couple was in a positive mood, it was possible for that partner to change the flow of the conversation.

“While more research needs to be done, this positive rewarding state of flow during conversation may be one of the factors that create enduring marital relationships,” McDaniel said. “Hence, these early relationships may serve as practice for later long-term relationship.”

Source: University of Kansas

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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