New research provides evidence that optimistic people tend to engage with their romantic partners in more constructive ways to resolve their everyday problems. The new findings have been published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
“Problem solving is a natural part of all relationships. For example, people argue with family members, people have bad days at work/school and go to their friends to chat about what went wrong, and people make joint life decisions with a partner where they need to figure out what to prioritize,” said study author Katelin E. Leahy, a PhD candidate in social/personality psychology at Michigan State University.
“Much of previous research on problem solving has been explicitly focused on conflict or looking at couples discuss one specific problem. I wanted to know how couples navigate problems day-to-day and how those experiences are associated with how optimistic people are, and how happy they are in their relationships.”
The study examined 112 couples who had been in a romantic relationship and living together for at least 6 months. The sample included 107 heterosexual couples and 5 lesbian couples, and the average relationship length was approximately 4.5 years.
The participants first completed baseline measures of optimism and general relationship quality. Those high in optimism agreed with statements such as “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best,” while those high in relationship quality agreed with statements such as “My relationship with my partner make me happy” and “My relationship with my partner is very stable.” For the next two weeks, the participants completed daily online surveys in which they were asked to report their current relationship quality, whether they had attempted to solve a problem with their partner, whether the problem was resolved, and what type of problem they had.
“Over the course of 14 days, couples had problem solving discussions often and typically resolved them on the same day,” Leahy explained. “Conflict-laden topics were about communication, financial and housework issues, and children. Problem discussions about everyday life concerned topics such as time management and transportation logistics.”
The researchers found that daily relationship quality tended to be higher when neither partner reported that a problem solving discussion had occurred. Relationship quality tended to be lower on days when the participants reported not solving the problem compared to when the problem was resolved or somewhat resolved.
“Couples who resolved their problems after the discussion were happier in their relationships,” Leahy told PsyPost.
Surprisingly, being more optimistic or having a more optimistic partner did was unrelated to whether a problem solving discussion had occurred. “We might think a negative (i.e., pessimistic) partner might see more issues in the world or the relationship and therefore tend to bring up more problems in daily conversations,” Leahy said. “But, being optimistic or having a more optimistic partner did not predict whether the couple had a problem solving discussion on a particular day.”
However, the researchers found evidence that optimism was associated with positive relationship outcomes. Participants who were more optimistic or had more optimistic partners were more likely to report that their problem had been at least partially resolved. Optimistic participants and participants with more optimistic partners were also less likely to report discussing a problem related to their relationship.
“Optimistic people were more likely to resolve their problems and less likely to discuss problems involving conflict,” Leahy explained.
Participants with more optimistic partners also tended to report relatively higher daily relationship quality regardless of whether a problem discussion occurred. Those with more pessimistic partners, in contrast, tended to report significantly lower relationship quality on days when a problem discussion occurred.
As with any study, the new research includes some limitations.
“The majority of the sample included white heterosexual couples in the Midwestern region of the United States,” Leahy explained. “Collecting data that includes more representation for racial/ethnic and sexual minorities is an important future direction for research on couples’ daily problem solving discussions that may, for example, tell us that certain problem solving discussions occur more frequently or matter more for couple well-being.”
“To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to use quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the frequency and nature of daily problem solving discussions in couples over 14 days and how they are associated with relationship quality and optimism,” she added.
The study, “Optimism, relationship quality, and problem solving discussions: A daily diary study“, was authored by Katelin E. Leahy, Deborah A. Kashy, M. Brent Donnellan, Jeewon Oh, and Kimberly K. Hardy.