How conflict makes - or breaks - a
relationship: Our First Fight
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
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 couples
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 others 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 couples 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 partners 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
dont 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
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 ones own commitment and the partners.
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 didnt, 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 ones own way of doing
things in order to mesh with the partners 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