Arguments are very often tests for couples that will determine whether they are able to stay together for years, or fizzle out at some point. For many of those couples that just couldn't bare arguing any more, the reason may have been because neither person understood what the other wanted, and what might have resolved the fight. In the end, it could have just been giving up a little power and showing a little more investment in the relationship.

"It's common for partners to be sensitive to how to share power and control when making decisions in their relationship," Keith Sanford, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University's College of Arts and Sciences, said in a press release.

Giving up power comes in many forms, Sanford said, including giving a partner more independence, admitting faults, showing respect, and being willing to compromise.

Sanford based his study on other studies of married or cohabitating - couples living together - people. These studies of over 3,500 married people found that conflicts really only have two basic types of underlying concerns: perceived threat, which causes a person to feel threatened by an overbearing partner, and perceived neglect, in which a partner is perceived as being disloyal and inattentive.

"We definitely respond to whether we gain or lose status," Sanford said. "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."

For Sanford's first study, he asked 455 married couples, aged 18 to 77, and who were married from less than a year to 55 years, to independently list resolutions they wished to see come out of a single current or ongoing conflict. These conflicts could have been about anything. All of the responses were able to be sorted into six categories:

  • To show investment
  • To stop adversarial behavior
  • To communicate more
  • To give affection
  • To make an apology

His second study then took another group of 498 married couples, aged 19 to 81, who were married from less than a year to 51 years, and had them fill out a 28-question survey that measured how much they wished for their conflicts to be resolved by the six resolutions from the first study. The results were consistent.

"The things couples want from each other during conflicts will depend on underlying concerns, and to resolve conflicts, they may need to use different tactics to address different underlying concerns," Sanford said. "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."


Sanford K, Wolfe K. What Married Couples Want From Each Other During Conflicts: An Investigation of Underlying Concerns. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 2013.