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Couples Fight Due to Perceived Threat, Neglect

Researchers Say They've Found the Keys to Discord in Relationships
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 25, 2010 -- All couples in committed relationships have disagreements and arguments, and most fights are driven by two fundamental concerns, new research finds.

One concern is perceived threat, which involves the idea that your partner is being hostile, overly controlling, critical, or is too quick to blame you, explains study researcher Keith Sanford, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University.

The other concern, perceived neglect, involves the feeling that your partner is failing to make a desired contribution in the relationship or not demonstrating an ideal level of commitment or investment in it.

Sanford developed a questionnaire, the Couples Underlying Concern Inventory, to measure these two basic underlying concerns experienced by partners. He says his studies support the validity of the tool.

In the first study, 1,224 married people were asked to recount a specific fight and to rate 57 words in describing themselves and their partners during that dispute.

Choices on the questionnaire ranged from feeling neglected, forgotten, overlooked, unwanted, rejected, invisible, helpless and unattractive to reports that partners seemed unloving, uncaring, inconsiderate, careless, ungrateful, judgmental, and intolerant.

In the second study, 2,315 married people reported how they felt and behaved during a specific dispute using a smaller version of the original questionnaire and another scale to rate for emotion.

Sanford says in a news release that the results suggest that an assessment of underlying concerns can produce key information about how a person views a conflict.

He notes that concerns of perceived neglect may be "best resolved when a person receives an apology and then makes a decision to forgive."  In cases of perceived threat, a person may be "more interested in receiving demonstrations of deference, expressions of appreciation and reductions in hostility."

"Perceived threat and perceived neglect are especially important because they appear to be two fundamental types of concern that can be reliably measured, which are clearly distinct from each other, and which couples often experience during a conflict," Sanford writes.

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