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New Study Identifies Couples' Underlying Concerns During a Fight

June 21, 2010

News SanfordA new Baylor University study has found that there are two fundamental underlying concerns when partners in a committed relationship fight.

Dr. Keith Sanford, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences, has not only identified the underlying concerns, he also has developed a specific method to measure them.

Sanford and his research have identified the first type of underlying concern as perceived threat, which involves a perception that one's partner is being hostile, critical, blaming or controlling.

The second type of concern is called perceived neglect, which involves a perception that one's partner is failing to make a desired contribution or failing to demonstrate an ideal level of commitment or investment in the relationship.

The results appear in the American Psychological Association's journal Psychological Assessment.

"When people have underlying concerns about a perceived threat or perceived neglect, they may be likely to engage in reflexive, emotionally charged behavior that can initially serve to escalate the conflict," Sanford said. "This means that perceived threat and neglect should correlate with how couples communicate during conflict. Each type of concern is associated with a specific and distinct set of emotions and perceptions."

Another result, Sanford believes, is that concerns regarding perceived neglect may be best resolved when a person receives an apology and then decides to forgive. In contrast, a person concerned about a perceived threat may be more interested in receiving demonstrations of deference, expressions of appreciation, and reductions in hostility.

Sanford and his research team also have created an assessment tool to measure these two underlying concerns. The Couples Underlying Concern Inventory is a questionnaire measuring the two basic types of underlying concern that couples experience during episodes of conflict. This study provides initial evidence supporting the validity of the assessment.

Sanford said the results suggest that an assessment of underlying concerns can provide important information about how a respondent is viewing a conflict interaction. He also said the results support the feasibility of encouraging people to express emotion when they perceive neglect but raise some doubts about the feasibility of this approach in situations where the underlying concern involves a perceived threat.