chapter
Introduction
ByJennifer A. Samp
Pages 8

Interpersonal conflict is an inherent but often dreaded part of close relationships. While everyone is familiar with conflict, how we perceive, manage, and communicate about conflict varies from person to person. Our current relationships are often sources of conflict. However, the ways in which we experience conflict are also influenced by our expectations, our personal histories, what we see in the media, and even by different cultures of conflict. Some of those cultures are shaped by religious, ethnic, regional, or national norms. Some of them are shaped by popular literature about conflict, such as those featured in “self-help” books and various online sites. From these sources, these experiences, and other factors, the thought of conflict conjures up an array of different feelings, some positive and some negative. For example, when asked to provide a metaphor for conflict, some focus on conflict as negative and problematic, likening it to “a war”, “a battle,” “unhealthy,” “a struggle,” “an explosion,” “abusive,” or a “circus” (McCorkle & Mills, 1992). Others view conflict as a positive environment for growth, creativity, and renewal; they describe conflict as “a dance,” “a quilt,” or “a tide” (Wilmot & Hocker, 2014). I prefer to think of conflict as “a tide.” Like a tide, conflict is “repetitive,

powerful, and inescapable” (Wilmot & Hocker, 2014). Indeed, the ebb and flow of a tide shows reliable patterns. Experts can predict the timing of high and low tides with incredible accuracy. However, though we can observe patterns, the specific waves are nearly impossible to predict, and the waters will change from one moment to the next. Moreover, the timing and range of a tide in a given locale is influenced but not infallibly determined by the sun, the moon, and the shape of a coastline. Similarly, communication scholars can offer predictions and explanations about how, for instance, couples might argue. But their theories can be more or less precise and do better or worse at explaining or predicting

particular conflicts. As I remind my students, one of the wonderful aspects of studying human behavior is that we are not always predictable. We do not always act in a consistent pattern, just like the waters in tides. And this is why sharpening our understanding of the perceptions, behaviors, and outcomes related to interpersonal conflict in close relationships is an important and ongoing discussion. People have a growing appreciation of the significance of conflict in their lives

and those of others. Lay literature reflects this interest. It is then no surprise that communication scholars echo this persistent interest in conflict (Roloff, 2014). Such scholars contribute to a growing literature that studies conflict in a variety of close relationship contexts such as romantic pairings and families. Even with this growing literature, much is still to be learned regarding how individuals talk about and navigate conflict with friends, partners, and family members. As well, we are just at the beginning of understanding how individuals transform conflict from a negative circumstance to one of forgiveness and relational growth. This anthology contributes to this growing literature. It will be a resource to scholars and students in the communication discipline. It features original essays by leading theorists who draw upon their research expertise to provide new and original contributions on interpersonal conflict processes between romantic partners, families, and/or friends. Some of the contributors are well established in the communication discipline; others are well on their way in establishing a solid research trajectory on conflict. This volume focuses on the conflict dynamics of close relationships for a

reason. Friend, dating, partnered, or married relationships are often marked by more commitment, emotional intensity, and investment than other relationships, such as acquaintances or co-workers. As readers will see in the various chapters, the nuances of close relationships generate differential impacts upon perceptions of, responses to, and the outcomes associated with conflict. The authors take either or both of two approaches in their essays. Some offer original discussions of a particular data set (a “spotlight study”); others draw on their recent research to highlight an important aspect of the conflict process. Of special note is how the authors reflect on the methodological challenges of studying conflict in close relationships. These recurrent themes lend the volume a unique appeal. While there is a growing number of book chapters and journal articles about conflict processes, the format of such research sometimes constrains authors from reflecting on some of the challenges and opportunities in studying their passion. Readers will also notice that many of the authors in this volume cite authors featured in other chapters. Such cross-citing and cross conversations are an important part of us better understanding communication and conflict processes as a scholarly community. And such cross-citing and acknowledgment shows what great academic citizens are featured in this volume, who are all working to continue scholarly conversations on conflict. This book is divided into five sections. Although the chapters are divided into

thematic sections, readers will find many overlaps in ideas, concepts, and

measurements across the discussions and reported studies. For example, many of the chapters show a recurring theme that conflict is defined and informed by relational perceptions, interdependence, and histories. Another theme is that conflict often reoccurs and is cyclical in close relationships. And of course, all of the chapters provide more evidence for studying conflict from a communication perspective. Section 1, entitled “Influences on Conflict Processes in Close Relationships,” focuses on some of the important physiological and psychological influences on interpersonal conflict. These chapters all highlight important influences on conflict processes. In Chapter 1, Lindsey Aloia and Denise Solomon highlight the communication of conflict via aggression. One of the important contributions of this chapter is how the authors study the influence of exposure to verbal aggression on responses to aggression later in life. Such findings are particularly relevant for persons such as those who experienced frequent and severe verbal aggression as a child: they were less responsive to conflict in adulthood. In Chapter 2, Rachel Reznik, Michael Roloff, and Courtney Miller highlight the impact of positive thoughts about relationships, specifically focused on the idea of “soul mates,” and how such an implicit relationship theory may impact stress about a conflict. In particular, this chapter highlights how endorsing the idea of a “soul mate” is associated with less stress about a conflict by the initiator of the conflict. Moon Sook Son, Lynne Webb, and Trish Amason’s focus in Chapter 3 is on how perceptions of sexual desires and activities may differ among couples, and how such differences may result in conflict. In particular, Son and colleagues’ research suggests that even when people perceive that there may be a sexual conflict, they often avoid or downplay discussion. The results synthesized in this chapter highlight that interpersonal conflict research has important implications in better understanding health-related decisions. This section concludes with Chapter 4, where John Caughlin, Erin Basinger, and Liesel Sharabi present a study focused on the influence of technologically mediated communication on the experience of conflict. This is a timely chapter because as the authors note, the rise in smart phones and social media changes the sphere of understanding for how people manage their close relationships. In particular, their work flags the evolving opportunities relational partners face in achieving relational goals and strategically managing conflict in different environments. Section 2, entitled “Power and Conflict in Close Relationships,” highlights two

different perspectives on how power affects conflict in close relationships. How power is defined within an individual’s perceptions or between conversational partners and how such power-defined influences structure communication during conflict is a very important issue that demands more research in the communication discipline. In Chapter 5, Norah Dunbar, Brianna Lane, and Gordon Abra focus on the substantial research on Dyadic Power Theory. Largely focused on the relationship between individuals’ perceptions of power relative to another and observed displays of dominance behaviors including gestures, facial expressions, and touch, this chapter highlights the compelling pattern that power and

control attempts are curvilinear, yet asymmetrical. Equal power dyads demonstrate the most dominance, followed by those in high power positions and then low power positions. Chapter 6 focuses on a different power dynamic related to conflict in close relationships: dependence power. Dependence is based on an individual’s judgment about his or her commitment and alternatives, such that individuals who are relatively uncommitted, have good alternatives to their current romantic relationship, and have partners who are highly committed, gain relational power over their more dependent partners (Cloven & Roloff, 1993). In his chapter, Timothy Worley extends prior research to examine how perceptions of dependence power from both individuals in a romantic dyad affect the likelihood of avoiding complaints about a relationship. Worley’s research found differences in the impact of dependence power for males and females, such that the more powerful they perceived themselves to be, the more they voiced complaints, whereas the more powerful males perceived themselves to be, the less they voiced complaints to their partners. Section 3, titled “Conflict as an Ongoing Process,” focuses on some recent

research on serial arguments. As the authors of the two chapters defining this section note, most conflict in close relationships is intractable. Therefore, conflicts on the same, or similar topic may occur repeatedly among friends, married couples, or families (Roloff & Johnson, 2002). The two chapters in this section focus on different dimensions related to serial arguments. In Chapter 7, Amy Johnson and Ioana Cionea focus on the importance of perceived interdependence of partners, as well as the role that individuals take in an interaction – for instance, if one person brings up the issue, or if both interactants bring up the topic. Importantly, the dynamic in which both partners introduce or acknowledge an issue is related to less stress about a conflict. In Chapter 8, Jennifer Bevan, Megan Cummings, Makenna Engert, and Lisa Sparks focus on the conflict styles utilized during serial conflicts and perceptions of resolvability. In examining reports of resolvability generally across a two-month period, more positive conflict strategies during a discussion about a serial argument were linked to perceived resolvability weeks later. Although not focused specifically on serial arguments, in Chapter 9, Kendra Knight and Jess Alberts tackle an instance of recurring conflict by focusing on how couples negotiate “domestic labor.” Even something as mundane as taking out the garbage can become a flashpoint for conflict. While such domestic labor may seem trivial to outsiders, the tasks individuals perform in shared environments are often quite important to intimates. Here, Knight and Alberts focus on married couples and observe that individuals avoid conflict about household labor out of a belief that addressing the issue will not lead to a positive change. Interestingly, individuals reported that they would rather perform the household task than engage in discussion about it. These results are intriguing beyond the marital relationship; as many communication educators can attest, students frequently report that the number one source of conflict with their roommate(s) is about keeping the shared space clean.