When I was formalizing Affirmative Intimacy® in 2015, I researched the causes of relationship conflict. I found pretty solid agreement from a lot of sources. I boiled it all down to nine key areas:
- Communication (None or Poor)
- Balance of Responsibilities
- Incompatibility of Attitudes/Beliefs/Feelings/Devotion (Regardless of Cause)
- Caring/Support “Gap” or Imbalance
Now a team of researchers from three universities has just released a new study on the matter. Their list is shorter than mine – only six items – but all of mine are definitely reflected in theirs. This research had some significant limitations. The sample was small (limits statistical power), and only newlyweds. The 3-year follow-up had a significant drop-out rate – about a third. Even so, it is important and it matches my own experience. It also matches that of other relationship helping professionals I know.
This is the list they came up with, and their definitions:
- Inadequate Attention or Affection – included reasons concerning expressions of love and care that couples disagree about.
- Jealousy and Infidelity – includes a partner’s behaviors that may increase the perceived risk of infidelity (e.g., “talking to an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend”), and reactions to an increased risk of infidelity (e.g., “jealousy,” “being possessive”).
- Chores and Responsibilities – includes reasons for disagreements about everyday tasks that partners may share.
- Sex – includes reasons for disagreements associated with sexual incompatibility and disclosure of a couple’s sexual intimacy (e.g., “sexual acts,” “telling private information about relationship to others”).
- Control and Dominance – includes reasons for disagreement over attempts by one partner to manipulate the other (e.g., “Who’s boss”).
- Future Plans and Money – includes reasons for disagreement associated with ability and willingness to invest resources in the relationship (e.g., “children”).
So let’s look at these reasons for relationship conflict. I’m also offering my suggestions on addressing them.
Relationship Conflict – Inadequate Attention or Affection
The study found that women’s but not men’s probability of having an affair within five years was positively correlated with the frequency with which the couple disagrees about Inadequate Attention or Affection. If women don’t feel they’re getting the attention they want in the relationship, they’re more likely to look for it elsewhere!
- Every person needs to define this for themselves – what is “inadequate”? You have to ask yourself if your expectations are reasonable. Do you expect things to be the same in a long-term relationship as they were in the courtship stage? It isn’t likely!
- What are you looking to your partner to provide that you should be providing to yourself? We too often look for support or validation from sources outside of ourselves. We fail to address our own self-care. Remember that you’re the first responder to your own issues, concerns, and emotional challenges.
- This pattern of dependence can be rooted in family of origin differentiation of self issues. Did you always wait for your parents or other family members to pay attention to you or affirm you in some way? Did you expect them always to step in and soothe you when you were stressed, disappointed or upset? As an adult, it’s now time to move away from that habit of thinking.
- I strongly recommend that you do some Five Love Languages research and share it with your partner(s). Maybe you’re just talking different languages!
- Have you even talked about this issue with your partner(s)? Unmet expectations are often unspoken expectations. Whether the expectations are justified or not, failing to talk about them almost always leads to disappointment. Do the essential self-examination. You’ll gain insight into what it is you’re “missing.” You’ll also see where your “lack” is actually coming from. Finally, you’re better prepared to ask for exactly what you really need.
Relationship Conflict – Jealousy and Infidelity
The study found that women’s but not men’s age is negatively correlated with the frequency with which the couple disagrees about Jealousy and Infidelity. As women age, the conflicts about Jealousy grow less. This is surprising, given the pop culture trope about men constantly seeking younger women.
- Resist pop culture’s efforts to define “infidelity” down! There really are no such things as “emotional infidelity,” “financial infidelity,” etc. These are convenient media labels designed to stir your emotional responses (and attract clicks).
- Assess your own thinking about what actually constitutes “infidelity” in your relationship and where that thinking is coming from – insecurity, fear, or anxiety – and work on those emotions first. Then you’re better positioned to have a discussion about your feelings.
- Jealousy is not a unitary emotion, and I believe it is almost never healthy. There are better ways to respond to concerns about your relationship. What we loosely term “jealousy” may serve as a “wake up call” for relationship problems. But jealousy rarely if ever contributes to the solution of those problems.
- You do need to set clear boundaries in your relationship – assume nothing! You have to have the necessary conversations. Be open to changing your views (and expecting your partner(s) to be the same). Without clear and mutually agreed-upon boundaries, you have no standing to complain if they are violated.
- Do not let your internal emotional issues create a climate of distrust and surveillance in your relationship. Encourage a healthy privacy versus a destructive secrecy. Work to be a healthy individual within the relationship and resist emotional fusion.
Relationship Conflict – Chores and Responsibilities
The study found that women’s but not men’s sexual satisfaction is negatively correlated with the frequency with which the couple disagrees about Chores and Responsibilities. This is a long-established observation in the literature on relationships. If women feel that responsibilities are not appropriately shared, this disappointment frequently ends up being expressed in the sexual dimension of the relationship.
- I often find that these relationship conflicts are frequently proxy issues for deeper disconnects (see Dominance and Control). It’s easier to argue about washing the dishes or childcare than about feelings of disconnection, respect, or being valued.
- These disputes are best addressed by honest conversations about expectations and the appropriate division of labor within the relationship.
- This is another area where family-of-origin issues are often in play. We come into our adult relationship with a template of “who does what, when” based upon how it was in our family of origin. Without discussion, we fall into the trap of assuming things. Times have changed!
- One approach is to agree on responsibilities based on who cares the most about a given task, or who hates doing it the least, who’s got the needed skills, etc. Then draw up a schedule you agree on. You can take turns doing the tasks that you both hate equally. You also might jointly decide to leave some tasks off the list entirely.
Relationship Conflict – Sex
Another surprising finding of the study was that women’s but not men’s probability of having an affair within five years was positively correlated with the frequency with which couples disagree about Sex. This seems to contradict the notion that it is usually men who go afield in search of sexual gratification. The study didn’t say exactly what sexual matters caused the relationship conflicts, though.
- I strongly urge you to never “weaponize” sex. Lysistrata notwithstanding, this is always a bad tack to take in relationships. I encourage dealing with the underlying issue(s) forthrightly and independently. Using or withholding sex to get your way is dangerous and counterproductive.
- If you can’t resist the temptation to weaponize sex, you may need to see a helping professional. You might start with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists – AASECT
- If differing desire for sex is a problem, AASECT professionals can help with that, too.
- Lower desire partners, don’t attack your partner with negative labels like “sex addict,” “porn addict,” “sex maniac,” etc. Higher desire partners, don’t attack your partner with negative labels like “frigid,” etc. Doing this never helps. It drives another wedge between you that can be difficult to remove.
- Be open to a wide array of possible solutions to this challenge. It is your relationship. You have the power consensually to do anything you want, any way you want, that makes you happy and satisfied. Kick any haters and judgers to the curb – hard!
Relationship Conflict – Control and Dominance
The study found that women’s but not men’s relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction is negatively correlated with the frequency with which the couple disagrees about Control and Dominance. These issues have a more powerful effect on women, but any partner can be the one triggering these relationship conflicts.
- This construct of Control and Dominance represents a complex set of attitudes and behaviors that are hard to unravel. Some are cultural. Some are personal. Many have large and deep roots in family-of-origin conditioning. We come to our adult relationships with a script written in our family of origin. That script may or may not match your partner’s. Even if it does, it may no longer be a script either of you wants to follow.
- Cultural prescriptions about “who wears the pants” and “you can’t do that, now that we’re together” are eroding, but not as fast as we’d like. We have to work at it ourselves.
- While the stereotype is of a controlling male, research shows that power imbalances and dominance/control struggles exist in lesbian relationships, too. This suggests that these are not necessarily gendered concerns.
- If your conflicts don’t cause physical or emotional abuse – in which case, get out – the solutions are much the same. Self-assessment, conversation, and compromise.
Relationship Conflict – Future Plans and Money
The study found that men’s but not women’s probability of having an affair within five years is positively correlated with the frequency with which couples disagree about Future Plans and Money. We’ve finally found the topic that riles men up!
- Money and finances are great proxy issues for deeper concerns. They tap into Control and Dominance, Inadequate Affection or Attention, and occasionally Chores and Responsibilities. Once again, it’s easier to fight about spending in general than what is really bothering you about where the money goes.
- Money is a symbolic issue for many people. In western culture, we are often more reluctant to talk about how much we make than even sex or illness. When we get into a relationship where sharing resources is socially expected, it can become a minefield. If it’s not ok even to talk about money, how can you reach a common understanding about how to get, save, and spend it?
- People often fail to discuss thoroughly their future plans and goals before entering a relationship. Only later do they find out that there’s a major disconnect. This then becomes a source of ongoing relationship conflict.
- How to address it? Have the conversations! Set aside time to discuss long-term plans and life goals and how they can be paid for. Try to reach agreement on the timing and the financial aspects of your goals.
- There are many tools to address money conflicts in relationships. Check out this website.
- You’re going to have to unpack the baggage you brought to this relationship from your family of origin. That’s where your relationship to money began. Your parents taught you everything about how money is earned, how it is spent, who gets to decide, how to keep track of it, whether it can be talked about or not, individual versus communal assets, etc. If you haven’t brought all this out into the open with your partner(s) and found out the same information from them, then you have your first step laid out for you. After that, you have the information you need to start creating a joint plan.
The recent study brought out some key areas of relationship conflict. I’ve offered you my take on where these problems might come from and some tips about how you can get started in addressing these topics in your own relationships.