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Even though it’s been decades in some cases, I can still remember some pretty heated exchanges that I’ve had in chamber music groups over the years, and how fired up I got even if I haven’t the foggiest idea what it was that we were arguing about.

In most cases, I think we found ways of working things out, and these arguments didn’t have too much of a lingering effect on either our relationship as musical colleagues or as friends outside of rehearsal. But I do think there were times where the negative feelings lingered, and it was harder to feel connected and collegial, and much more tempting to think of subtle passive aggressive ways to get back at them. And perhaps were part of the reason why we weren’t inclined to stick together for longer than we did.

It’s been said that being in a quartet is like being like a marriage. And if that’s indeed a fair analogy, might there be something we can learn from the research on marital relationships, that could help us experience more satisfaction in our relationships with close musical colleagues?

How do couples recover from conflicts?

I stumbled across a study (Parsons et al., 2019) recently which looked at one particular aspect of relationships – specifically, how couples recover or reconcile after conflicts.

Like, what strategies do they use? And which of these strategies are conducive to feeling more positive emotions, and connected and close to each other? Whereas what are the strategies that lead to ongoing feelings of frustration or anger, and seem to create more distance, and less satisfaction with the relationship?

18 recovery behaviors

Over the course of 21 days, 115 couples provided a daily description of what they did after conflicts.

There were essentially 18 recovery behaviors, ranging from hugging or holding hands to engaging in prayer or meditation to apologizing, forgiving the partner, dropping it or agreeing to disagree, seeking outside help, giving them the cold shoulder, or sulking.

Which essentially fell into four categories:

  1. Avoidance (e.g. giving each other some space to cool down before returning to the discussion, sulking, refusing to speak)
  2. Active repair (e.g. hugging, saying “I love you,” having a date night)
  3. Gaining perspective (e.g. seeking help from a friend, compromising, seeing things from the other person’s point of view)
  4. Letting go (e.g. dropping the issue, prioritizing the relationship over the conflict)

So…which of these was most effective? Like, which one helped partners experience more positive lovey-dovey feelings, fewer angry grouchy feelings, and helped them maintain a sense of closeness and appreciation for each other?

2 weeks. 1553 conflicts.

226 couples, ranging in age from 20 to 72, who had been living with each other for anywhere from 6 months to 26 years, completed a daily diary each evening for two weeks. They logged any conflict they may have had with their partner, noted which repair strategies they used, and completed various assessments, gauging their mood, relationship satisfaction, and relationship intimacy (how close, understood, and appreciated they felt).

So which repair strategies were associated with more positive mood and higher levels of relationship satisfaction?

And the best strategy is…?

The short answer is that utilizing active repair strategies (like holding hands, or spending quality time together) seemed to lead to the best results, with these strategies being associated with more positive mood and relationship satisfaction than the other strategies.

The gaining a new perspective strategies (like seeking help from a friend or compromising) seemed to be somewhat helpful, in that they tended to promote discussions where partners spoke more openly about their experience, and partners experienced less negativity than those who just checked out. But these strategies didn’t seem to have quite the same level of impact overall as the active repair strategies.

The let go strategies (like agreeing to disagree or simply dropping the issue) were kind of a mixed bag. Dropping the conflict did seem to contribute to more relationship satisfaction than carrying a grudge. But participants who found themselves letting go of things more frequently reported feeling more negative than those who let go of things less often. Which kind of makes sense, right? In that sure, agreeing to disagree means you can both move on and avoid having an unpleasant argument – but if you find yourselves agreeing to disagree about something every day, that’s not going to feel so great either.

The worst results came from the avoidance strategies (like distracting yourself from the conflict by doing other things, or refusing to speak to your partner), which was associated with more negative feelings, more depressive symptoms, and worse relationship satisfaction, in addition to feeling less understood and appreciated.

Takeaways

So what are we to do with this?

Well, conflict in any relationship, whether it be with friends, family, romantic or musical partners, is probably inevitable. And we’re all going to naturally respond to this conflict in some way. But given that there are ways of responding that may help us experience more satisfaction in our relationships and avoid getting to that place where we are tempted to grab their instrument and smash them over the head with it, the researchers suggest that perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we learned how to use the most effective repair strategies.

Which again are:

  1. Showing affection (physically or verbally)
  2. Spending quality time together (like date night, engaging in fun or productive activities together)
  3. Coming to an agreement, where nobody has to give up anything they really want
  4. Apologies
  5. Forgiveness

Of course, it’s not clear from this study if there might be some other factor in the relationship that already makes some couples more likely to use these strategies than others, but it still made me wonder…are active repair strategies a sort of “soft skill” that might be worth teaching to students when they start playing in trios or quartets? Or are these things that quartets who stay together for a long time – and are satisfied with their relationships as collaborators – just naturally figure out over time through trial and error? Is this one of the factors that predicts ensemble longevity? Does relationship satisfaction in an ensemble matter in terms of what an audience hears and sees on stage? Is it possible to be highly satisfied with one’s colleagues as musicians, but quite dissatisfied with one’s colleagues as people?

I don’t know if there are definitive answers to these, but maybe there’s a curious grad student out there somewhere who will take on something like this for a thesis or dissertation and let us know one of these days. =)


References

Parsons, J. A., Prager, K. J., Wu, S., Poucher, J. W., Hansen, M. P., & Shirvani, F. (2020). How to kiss and make-up (or not!): Postconflict behavior and affective recovery from conflict. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(1), 35–45. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000579