Warring Couples Don't Want Apologies. They Want Power


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If you spend your nights ducking vases instead of sharing warm embraces with your spouse, note that your partner isn't looking for an apology.

He or she is looking for power.

Traditionally, the most common exit strategy in any romantic conflict is an apology, maybe with flowers and candy or a lovingly crafted home-cooked meal, candlelight and champagne.

But a study from Baylor University says squabbling couples don't really want to hear the words "I'm sorry" or "please forgive me" as much as they want you to "relinquish power" — by which study authors mean allowing your partner more independence, acknowledging your faults, perceived or otherwise, displaying more respect and showing that you're wiling to compromise.

"It's common for partners to be sensitive to how to share power and control when making decisions in their relationship," says Keith Sanford, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor's College of Arts & Sciences and lead researcher for the study.

Spouses bruised from conflict and altercations see "losing power" as a way to make a much-needed investment in a relationship, he says.

How does Sanford see ceding power as a way of establishing an investment in your love life? In these five ways, specifically:

  • Sharing intimate thoughts.
  • Sharing intimate feelings.
  • Listening better.
  • Sharing household chores.
  • Engaging in leisure activities.

Baylor studied 3,500 married people to establish the findings, which boil down to a pair of key conclusions:

  • People in relationships fear what Sanford calls "perceived thoughts," in which the spouse believes his or her status is threatened by what the study calls a "critical and demanding partner."
  • They also fear "perceived neglect," in which one spouse sees another as disloyal or indifferent to their feelings — a key driver in detaching from the investment side of a relationship.

All told, wanting an apology is low on the list of aggrieved spouses, the study says. Aside from giving up power, apologies rank below wanting a display of investment in a relationship, halting "adversarial" behavior, showing better communication skills and providing physical and emotional affection.

Sanford says those requests from aggrieved romantic partners are all about status — specially, losing it inside a relationship.

"We definitely respond to whether we gain or lose status," he says. "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."

That means being creative and attentive, but not apologetic.

"The things couples want from each other during conflicts will depend on their underlying concerns, and to resolve conflicts they may need to use different tactics to address different underlying concerns," he says. "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 is offering couples a free conflict resolution program online here.

— By Brian O'Connell

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