Dr. Keith Sanford, Baylor University - Power, Apologies, and Domestic Discord

Oct 15, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Keith Sanford of Baylor University explores the psychology behind the average domestic argument. 

Keith Sanford is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University. His research investigates married couples and other close interpersonal relationships, and he is especially interested in understanding how people resolve conflict. He holds a Ph.D. from Michigan State University.

About Dr. Sanford

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Dr. Keith Sanford - Power, Apologies, and Domestic Discord

It is normal for married couples and for partners in committed romantic relationships to experience conflict from time to time.  When couples have conflicts, can we predict what each partner is most likely to want from the other to resolve the issue?  To answer this question, we first need to consider something I call an “underlying concern.”  An underlying concern is a person’s primary reason for feeling distressed during a conflict, and it may be that all humans experience similar types of concerns.  To identify what these concerns might be, I conducted a series of studies in which several thousand participants rated different words they might use to describe themselves and their partners during conflicts.  I found that almost all concerns boil down to one of just two basic types.  First, a “perceived threat” is a concern that a partner is threatening one’s status, being judgmental, critical, or controlling.  Second, a “perceived neglect” is a concern that a partner is not sufficiently committed or invested, or not making a sufficient contribution to the relationship in some way.

I then conducted a pair of studies including over 900 people who were married.  I asked them to think of a recent conflict, complete a questionnaire measuring underlying concerns, and then report what they wanted from their partners during their conflicts.  I found that, when people were concerned about a perceived threat, they wanted their partners back off in some way – to stop being adversarial, or to relinquish power.  When people were concerned about a perceived neglect, they wanted their partners to take some kind of action – to show investment or to increase communication and affection.  Thus, when couples want to know the best way to resolve a conflict, it may be useful first to identify their underlying concerns.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.