Anyone who’s ever had a tiff with her partner about dirty socks on the floor or whose turn it is to load the dishwasher—and had that tiff turn into a battle about everything and anything else—knows that sometimes what we fight about isn’t really what we’re fighting about. Research published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology supports that hunch…and sheds some light on why we fight, and why sometimes kissing and making up is hard to do.
Past research on thousands of married people came to the conclusion that, no matter what you’re fighting about, there are just two basic types of underlying concern when you’re mid-fight:
1. Perceived threat: when a person feels like their partner is critical or demanding and is threatening his or her status
2. Perceived neglect: when a person feels like their partner is being disloyal or inattentive and is showing a lack of investment in the relationship
In other words, a cigar is not just a cigar, and a fight about socks on the floor is not really a fight about socks on the floor.
A recent study at Baylor University built on those findings and dug deeper, asking hundreds of married couples to independently list their desired resolution to a relationship conflict. Everything from minor misunderstandings to major ongoing conflicts were brought up, but researchers found that each one of them actually fell into just a handful of types of desired conflict resolution. From most to least common, scientists found that warring partners wanted their significant other to:
1. Relinquish power
2. Show investment in the relationship
3. Stop adversarial behavior
4. Communicate more
5. Give affection
6. Make an apology
An “I’m sorry” was last on the list of things that would fix things—fighting couples want their partner to be willing to relinquish power, which the study categorizes as giving a partner more independence, admitting faults, showing respect, and being willing to compromise.
“We definitely respond to whether we gain or lose status,” said researcher Keith Sanford, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences. When trying to make up after a fight, keep in mind what the underlying concern was—perceived threat or perceived neglect—in figuring out what to do to patch things up. “When we feel criticized, we are likely to have underlying concerns about a perceived threat to status, and when that happens, we usually want a partner simply to disengage and back off,” says Sanford. “The husband might buy flowers, and that might be helpful if his partner has a concern involving perceived neglect. But if the partner has a concern involving perceived threat, then the flowers won’t do much to address the issue.” My takeaway: when having a fight with a significant other, treat the cause, not the symptom.