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When It Comes to Resolving Conflicts in Relationships, One Size Does Not Fit All
Couples will argue; that's a given. How they deal with conflict is what sets strong relationships apart from the rest.
If you've tried to solve conflicts by trying to "make up" — buying your partner flowers or cooking them their favorite meal — you've probably noticed that it doesn't always help. A new Baylor University study may explain why.
The Baylor researchers had previously found that one of two underlying concerns tended to be behind an aggrieved partner's mindset during a conflict in a relationship. Either they feel their worth or status in the relationship is being threatened by a demanding or critical partner; or they see their partner as neglectful of them, perhaps by being disloyal or inattentive and showing a lack of investment in the relationship.
Just as medicine works best when you treat the underlying condition instead of just treating its symptoms, conflicts are more likely to be resolved when a person's underlying concerns are addressed. Flowers or a meal may not do that.
Marital conflicts are often approached with a one size fits all approach, for example emphasizing the need for better communication. Yet the current study found people who felt threatened or disrespected by their partner want less communication from their partner, not more of it.
So an approach to resolving the conflict that takes into account the person's feeling that the disagreement is about their partner's lack of respect for their desires, is likely to work far better than simply talking.
In the current study, the researchers examined married or cohabitating couples and asked them what they specifically wanted from their partner to help resolve a current or ongoing conflict. And what they wanted depended on whether they felt threatened or neglected.
People who felt their standing in the relationship was threatened wanted their partners to stop being so adversarial; for example, to stop blaming and control their emotions better. They also wanted the threatening partner to relinquish power; for example by being more willing to compromise, show more respect, acknowledge their partner's expertise, let their partner decide the issue.
People who felt neglected wanted something different. They wanted their partner to show more investment, for example to be more loving, show more support; and to communicate more and show more affection.
So, flowers can be nice when you feel neglected, but they just don't cut it when you feel threatened.
Just like in a political poll, the exact phrasing of questions can strongly affect the results one gets in this type of study. If you ask people to write out a list of their marital complaints, some people are not thorough. After listing a complaint or two, they get tired and stop. At the other extreme, some people will keep on listing complaints until you run out of paper. But if you ask people to pick out their complaints from a prepared list that you offer them, you may end up putting words in their mouth. Each questioning method offers some advantages and some disadvantages; neither is perfect.
The researchers used both methods and got essentially the same result each time: what a partner wanted depended on whether they felt threatened or felt neglected.
Men and women often view relationships differently. So it's not surprising that the study found differences between what each sex wanted during a conflict, with women having a greater desire for their partners to relinquish power, show investment and apologize, while men reported a greater desire for their partner to give more affection.
What the study found about apologizing was somewhat ambiguous. People who felt neglected showed slightly more interest in receiving apologies. But people who listed their own desires (rather than checking them off from a list) rarely listed a desire for an apology. They may have had more specific forms of apology in mind.
This is consistent with the idea that apologies during a conflict are almost always welcome but are nowhere near a magic bullet.
The study's main message: you're much more likely to work out your marital conflicts if you understand exactly what it is that your partner wants.
An article on the study appears in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
July 25, 2013