"I thought we settled this?!" Antecedents and consequences of resolution of an initial episode in a serial argument.

Author:Roloff, Michael E.


It is axiomatic that at some point in a relationship conflict will emerge. Indeed, people report that they experience conflict in a variety of their relationships (e.g., Argyle & Fumham, 1983). In some cases, they choose to withhold their complaints and thereby avoid an argument. However, in other cases, they confront their partners and an argument may occur. Research shows that relational partners often are unable to resolve their arguments in a single episode choosing instead to end the disagreement with a standoff, to let it fade away, or to withdraw (e.g., Benoit & Benoit, 1987; Lloyd, 1987; Vuchinich, 1987). The lack of resolution may turn into a pattern of serial arguing in which individuals continue to engage one another over the same issue, often with the goal of eventually reaching agreement (Bevan et al., 2007). Believing that a serial argument is resolvable is positively correlated with relational quality (Johnson & Roloff, 1998) and negatively related to experiencing mental and physical health problems associated with the argument (Bevan & Sparks, 2014; Malis & Roloff, 2006). Moreover, believing that a serial argument is resolvable is negatively related to a person's estimate that it will continue in future episodes (Carr, Schrodt, & Ledbetter, 2012).

The aforementioned research suggests that it is beneficial to hold an optimistic view about the resolvability of a serial argument. However, this research does not address more fundamental questions. Do people sometimes believe that their serial argument was resolved only to see it return? If so, what factors produce such beliefs and what are the consequences of being wrong about conflict resolution? Indeed, we believe a number of factors promote an unduly optimistic belief that an argument is resolved when it is not. Our aims are to explicate the notion of conflict resolution, create a framework and hypotheses about the antecedents and consequences of believing a serial argument was resolved, and provide data testing our predictions.


In a sense, conflict resolution is a somewhat archaic term with current conflict researchers more often referring to conflict management. This trend might reflect the recognition that conflicts often are not resolved and instead are merely managed. It might also result from interest in the styles and strategies people use to manage conflict, some of which might result in conflict resolution. Regardless, we view conflict resolution as a belief that a disagreement has ended and will not repeat. This rather simple definition carries with it complexity.

First, the degree to which a conflict is resolved may be assessed in several ways. One way is to directly ask participants if a conflict was resolved. Often individuals indicate in surveys, diaries, or interviews if an argument was resolved (e.g., Lloyd, 1990; McGinn, McFarland & Christianson, 2009; Mitnick, Heyman, Malik & Slep, 2009). However, our definition also specifies that individuals believe that an argument will not be repeated. With regard to serial arguments, by definition the disagreement was not resolved in the initial episode and has been repeated. Consequently, to gain further insight one might investigate the number of episodes that have occurred since the first one (e.g., Reznik & Roloff, 2011) or how frequently partners have argued about the issue (e.g., Lloyd, 1990). These measures provide an indication of the ongoing difficulty that partners have had resolving the argument.

Second, our definition does not identify how a conflict was resolved. That means that the definition is agnostic with regard to the communication processes and the type of agreement that prompts individuals to believe that an argument has been resolved. During episodes of serial arguing, individuals may engage in a variety of destructive (e.g., mutual hostility) and constructive behaviors (e.g., problem solving) that could influence resolution. In addition, individuals report that their arguments end in a variety of ways including mutual solution (e.g., compromising, resolving differences), fading out (e.g., moving on to other activities or agreeing to stop the episode without agreement), avoidance (e.g., one partner walking out or refusing to discuss the issue further) and apology (Lloyd, 1987). It is possible that some of these outcomes may have different relationships to resolution.

Third, because serial arguments inherently involve more than one person, it is important to assess whether there is agreement among the parties as to whether the issue was resolved. We discuss two types of agreement. Intrapersonal agreement reflects the degree to which one relational partner believes that the other partner shares his or her belief that an argument was resolved. Interpersonal agreement is the degree to which both parties actually agree that the disagreement was resolved. We will address some of these complexities in the next section.


Our approach to understanding conflict resolution and serial arguing is embodied in the following propositions. First, arguing highlights a source of relational incompatibility. Deutsch (1973) defines conflict as the existence of incompatible activity in which the actions of one party prevent, interfere with, or in some way make the actions of another less likely or effective. Because most relational rules, and especially those related to intimate relationships, prescribe supportive actions (Argyle & Henderson, 1984; Baxter, 1986), highlighting incompatibility could signal disapproval and rejection of a relational partner (Overall, Fletcher, & Simpson, 2006), which could have a negative effect on relational quality (Murray, Holmes, & Collins, 2006).

Second, to reduce the potentially harmful relational consequences of arguing, individuals often are motivated to bring arguments to a quick end. Vuchinich (1987) suggests that extended arguing often is repetitive and inefficient and consequently there is an attenuation factor that keeps arguments brief. Similarly, Laforest (2002) observed that in order to prevent relational complaints from contaminating a conversation, complaints often are followed with explanations by the perpetrator, which are accepted rather than challenged by the complainer. When doing so, parties successfully avoid an extended argument.

Third, the motivation to end arguments quickly can result in an illusion of resolution. The illusion of resolution manifests itself in situations in which one partner thinks the issue has been resolved but the other does not. At the intrapersonal level, an individual may perceive the argument was not resolved but believes the partner thinks it was resolved. In such cases, the partner suffers from the illusion. At the interpersonal level, one partner may think the argument has been resolved and is unaware that the partner disagrees with his or her assessment. In such cases, neither partner is aware of the illusion. Using a diary method, Lloyd (1990) examined the degree to which both members of heterosexual dating couples agreed that each of their conflicts over a two-week period were resolved. Although their assessments of resolution were significantly correlated (r = .54, p

Fourth, the illusion of resolution may result in positive short-term effects but have no effect or even negative effects on long-term outcomes. Individuals often ruminate by thinking about what was said and planning what they will say. This cognitive activity can keep the serial argument alive (Honeycutt, 2003/2004). When perceiving the conflict to be resolved, individuals may be able to reach cognitive closure and turn their attention to other matters. However, in cases in which one partner thinks the conflict has been resolved but the other does not, the latter may continue to mull over the conflict and re-engage. Furthermore, in the rush to reach an agreement, individuals may be prone to enter into bad agreements that prove to be unsustainable. In such cases, both partners may think an issue has been resolved but the solution proves to be ineffective in the long run. For example, partners may have an "agreement bias" and are willing to accept any solution that ends the confrontation even at the risk that the agreement is substandard (see Cohen, Leonardelli, & Thompson, 2010). In other cases individuals simply say they agree to do something with no agreement as to what they will actually do (McGinn et al., 2009). The absence of implementation steps may mean the issue is not actually addressed. Finally, individuals who are motivated to avoid conflict sometimes report that they accept resolutions that subordinate their personal needs in order to accommodate their partners' needs (Neff & Harter, 2002). Self-sacrifice motivated by conflict avoidance may eventually reduce relational quality (e.g., Impett, Gere, Kogan, Gordon, & Keltner, 2013). Because this framework is new, there is no known research examining erroneous beliefs that a serial argument has been resolved. To fill this void, we will derive hypotheses from our framework.


Research indicates that the initial episode of a serial argument lays the groundwork for subsequent encounters. The actions that people report occurred in the initial episode are positively correlated with those occurring in subsequent episodes (Malis & Roloff, 2006) and communication patterns reported to have occurred during the initial encounter are predictive of the number of subsequent episodes (Reznik & Roloff, 2011).

The illusion of resolution may be especially evident in initial episodes of a serial argument. Research shows that people typically initiate influence attempts with positive strategies such as explanations or simple requests, but...

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