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How conflict makes - or breaks - a relationship: Our First Fight
May 2002

by Janet L. Jacobsen

Into each relationship a bit of disagreement must fall. But some disagreements are big and sooner or later every romantic couple has their “first big fight.”
Communication researchers studied the first big fight (FBF) among dating couples in their late teens to early thirties, looking at conditions that led up to the fight, the results of the fight, and the differences between couples who “survived” the con-flict and those who broke up as a result.

Causing the first fight
The researchers discovered four factors at work in a dating couple’s first big fight. Early in dating relationships, couples tend to avoid conflict. This sometimes leads to the ex-pectation that things will always go smoothly. Eventually uncertainties build up, particularly uncertainty about each other’s commitment to the relationship The study found that commitment-related differences were an important trigger for conflict in dating relationships. Jealousy played a key role too, often in ways related to differences over commitment.

Another factor was violations of the expectations that each person had about the rela-tionship. This might result from changes in circumstances, such as a change of schedule, job, or residence, which forced a change in the previous patterns of the relationship.
Finally, personality and background differences play an important role in a couple’s first big fight. For instance, one part-ner likes to go out regularly to raucous events with lots of people, while the other partner prefers quiet, intimate, less chaotic surroundings. Over time, the fundamental differences become insurmountable.

Effects of the fight
The first fight has three major effects on a relationship, researchers found. The conflict leads to a clarification of feelings between the partners - about each other and about the relationship. It also forces the partners to be more aware of their interdependence, to see themselves not only as individuals but also as a couple. Finally, the FBF is a “memorable and unique event” in any relationship, which can lay a foundation for how future con-flicts will be handled, both in terms of strategies for handling differences, and in terms of the subjects the couple will have differences about.

The beginning or the end?
The first big fight was traumatic for all couples. When couples saw the event as clarifying where they stood with one another, with agreement about commitment, the relationship was likely to survive the difficulty.

Couples that broke up following the FBF, however, reported being surprised by several aspects of the conflict, including their partner’s behavior. When couples came out of the fight was increased doubts about the relationship and an unwillingness to discuss the issues, it generally spelled the beginning of the end for the romance.

The researchers explain, “Couples typically perceive differences in their beliefs, values and personalities early in their dating, but don’t see a need to address them.” As long as things are going well, why bring up potential problems?
But eventually a prob-lem comes to the surface, often as the result of what one scholar called “cumulative annoyance” - the response to a “progressively increasing state of irritation.” The couples who broke up after the FBF were generally unable or unwilling to talk about their differences.

Couples who survived the FBF, on the other hand, con-fronted the problems directly, talking them over and working together to resolve difficult situations.

After the fight
The team that studied the “first big fight” came to sev-eral conclusions about the event. First, the central issue affecting the FBF is commitment, both one’s own commitment and the partner’s.

Second, the FBF can both increase and reduce uncertainty about the relationship. They found that among couples that survived the fight, the event often marked the first major expression of their commitment to the relationship.

Finally, and not surprisingly, these communication researchers concluded that what distinguished couples who sur-vived the FBF, compared to those who didn’t, was communication. Unlike the “nonsurvivors,” the survivors “generally believed that a successful relationship required a joint effort in problem-solving, some sacrifice from both parties, and the ability and/or willingness to adjust one’s own way of doing things in order to mesh with the partner’s way of doing things.”

Not all relationships are meant to last. Sometimes we dis-cover important differences with-out having to have a real fight. And often couples discover that they have a commitment to each other without needing a major disagreement to bring it out.
But sooner or later, con-flict will come. And this study indicates that for couples who want the first big fight to be a step toward a better relationship, the key is in talking about the issues and how to resolve them together.