New research provides evidence that third-party mediation improves the outcome of difficult discussions between romantic partners. The study, published in the journal Cortex, also suggests that interpersonal conflict can alter how the brain responds to the perception of one’s partner
“What I liked about working on this topic specifically is how easily it lent itself to interdisciplinary research,” said Halima Rafi, a PhD candidate at University of Geneva and the corresponding author of the study.
“Conflict research is a combination of social and affective neuroscience, psychology and economics (we had a parallel experiment on how conflict affects financial decision making that has not been published yet) and we also worked in conjunction with lawyers and mediators from the greater Geneva area. All of this felt promising and important because it brought us closer to studying this very common and significant human experience in an ecologically valid manner.”
For their study, the researchers recruited 36 heterosexual couples from the general community. Prior to the experiment, the participants completed measures of the quality of their relationship, intrapersonal and interpersonal emotional competence, and other factors. The initial survey also included ratings of the level of disagreement on 15 recurring topics of conversation, such as finances and household chores.
The couples were asked to start a discussion about one of these areas of disagreement. The session was accompanied by a professional mediator, who helped to direct the conversation for half of the couples. For the other half, the mediator was present but did not become involved in the conversation.
The researchers found that active mediation was associated with improved satisfaction about the conflict discussion and whether or not an agreement was reached by the end of the session.
“Conflict is a normal and impactful experience that we all have to live through and there are ways of going about it that are less destructive/more constructive than others,” Rafi told PsyPost “One of these ways is using a third-party mediator, which won’t necessarily take away the negative emotions associated with interpersonal conflict but it may increase post-conflict feelings of satisfaction and contentment. These positive emotions are incredibly important for the long-term health of our relationships.”
Before and after the conflict discussion, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to record the participants’ brain activity as they viewed images of their romantic partner’s face or images of an unknown person.
The neuroimaging data provided evidence that the conflict discussion altered the neural representation of romantic partners.
“The activations before the conflict replicated earlier studies on romantic love, showing an activation pattern in brain regions such as the striatum and orbitofrontal cortex,” Rafi explained in a news release. “After the dispute, we quite logically observed a general deactivation in both groups in the regions associated with romantic love, including the striatum.”
When comparing couples who received active mediation with those who did not, the researchers found that the former tended to have greater activation in the nucleus accumbens after the conflict, which is a key region in the brain’s reward circuit. However, this trend did not reach statistical significance, “possibly due to our sample size,” the researchers noted.
“This is a preliminary study which means that it needs to be replicated with larger sample sizes before any major conclusions can be drawn,” Rafi told PsyPost. “An important point for future studies using a pre-post design like ours is to include a third experimental group (in addition to the mediation and no mediation groups) that doesn’t undergo a conflictual discussion in between scans. This is important because it would allow us to say the changes in neural activation after conflict, mediated or not, are in fact related to said conflict and not an effect of time.”
The study, “Impact of couple conflict and mediation on how romantic partners are seen: An fMRI study“, was authored by Halima Rafi, Francois Bogacz, David Sander, and Olga Klimecki.