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Resolving Relationship Conflict by Understanding Underlying Concerns


Underlying concerns are primarily what motivate relationship conflicts. In couples’ therapy, partners are encouraged to express their concerns and learn ways to resolve issues that stem from those concerns. But until now, few studies have looked at the specific desires that partners have related to conflict resolution. Keith Sanford of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University in Texas wanted to explore how concerns affected couples’ resolution strategies, but more importantly, preferences for style of conflict resolution.

Sanford focused on perceived threat and perceived neglect, two common underlying concerns in relationships. People who experience perceived threat may feel their status is being questioned and have issues with power and control while those who perceive neglect fear abandonment and indifference from their partners.

For his study, Sanford questioned 953 married or cohabitating partners and asked them to describe the underlying concerns they had in their relationships and what they wanted from their partners regarding conflict resolution. The goal was to examine the specific nuances of relationship distress and dissatisfaction rather than look solely at general unhappiness.

The results revealed that people who cited perceived neglect as their primary relationship concern wanted their partners to actively participate in the resolution and relationship by expressing more affection and communicating more. Those who perceived high levels of threat during conflict wanted their partners to disengage and to release power and control. They also said they wanted less adversarial action from their partners.

These findings are unique from other studies because they isolate particular fears and desires. When couples are only asked about positive and negative aspects of their relationships, the answers they provide cannot reveal patterns of fear and the root of underlying concerns. This makes identification of certain relationship domains and constructs challenging for counselors and therapists.

“However,” said Sanford, “This study provided support for hypotheses regarding expected differences between the two underlying concerns.” Sanford believes that the results of this research offer support for the exploration of underlying concerns and how these concerns relate to conflict outcome desires in intimate relationships.

Sanford, Keith, and Kristin L. Wolfe. (2013). What married couples want from each other during conflicts: An investigation of underlying concerns. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 32.6 (2013): 674-99. ProQuest. Web.

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  • wyatt July 8th, 2013 at 10:29 AM #1

    Quite frankly, just getting a couple to talk out their issues is a major feat, much less having them get to the real root cause of their problems with one another. I appluad the team who worked on thsi research and will applaud even more once couples start actually getting to those underlying issues and seeing that there is always more than meets the eye causing problems.

  • Meg July 9th, 2013 at 4:14 AM #2

    Neither outcome, threat or neglect, would be desirable. Or at least they wouldn’t be what I am looking for when it coems to resolving issues with my spouse.

    Am I in the minority by the fact that I am just looking for some compromise? I don’t think that my husband is either going to avoid me or threaten me over a disagreement. I kind of think that if this is the path that you go doen then maybe this isn’t the right relationship for you?

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