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When Needs Come Into Conflict

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"The problem is that when needs are in conflict neither is necessarily right or wrong although each person may believe that their position is the correct one."

Recently, a website reader submitted a passive-aggressive example to Excel At Life for suggestions. However, this example appears to be a case of when needs come in conflict rather than passive-aggressive behavior (although there is certainly passive-aggressive behavior present):

“My husband and I had a new house built. Our first home was agreed upon to become a rental property. The rental property, we agreed, would pay for our daughter's college education. One week before moving into our new home, my husband canceled the lease that I obtained through a realtor and informed me that his cousin was moving in. You guessed it: the rent was always late and my husband started picking the rent up piecemeal. Didn't work out. Cousin eventually moved out and we had to pay for a moving van! This scenario played out twice more, costing us tens of thousands of dollars. I'm crying all the time, my hair fell out and my daughter's college tuition is still unpaid. Today, my husband claims that he does not understand! When approaching my husband concerning the rental property, I said, “Honey, talk to me, please explain what is happening, we agreed what was the purpose.” Further, I stated to my husband that he went behind my back and offered my sister a lease although my sister came to me and I told her that I needed to speak with my husband. I asked my husband again, what is going on and explained to him that family, friends and business should never mix. Meanwhile, I'm still waiting for an explanation, he moved his nephew's family in without consulting me as if we had never talked at all. All of this took place between 2000 thru 2008 and my husband will not talk at all when this subject is brought up. We went to counseling over this issue in 2004 and after one session, he said to the counselor, 'my wife is grieving her mother and we will not need any other help.' By the way, my mother passed away in 2009!”

This example illustrates the problem of when couples are faced with important needs that are in direct conflict with one another. In other words, meeting one person's need means not meeting the other person's need.

The Process of Conflict Resolution

As I discuss conflict resolution, keep in mind that I am only pursuing one possible explanation for the conflict described in the above example so as to use it as an example of a common problem couples experience. I have not conducted a thorough evaluation of this situation so my assumptions may be completely wrong in this particular instance. However, that is not important for the purpose of this particular discussion about when needs come in conflict.

1) Important needs come into conflict. More commonly than not, couples have different needs and these needs come into conflict. Sometimes these needs are considered major by both people. For instance, one wants to have children, the other doesn't. Or, one wants to move for a job opportunity, the other wants to stay near family. The problem is that when needs are in conflict neither is necessarily right or wrong although each person may believe that their position is the correct one.

Why do I think this is an example of needs in conflict? The wife strongly indicates that her need is to pay for their daughter's education. However, the husband appears to be expressing a need as well, although his is a passive, if not passive-aggressive, expression of the need (at least as described in the example). Most likely, if I were to make an assumption, his need is to take care of family which is commonly an important need for many married men. It may seem that based on this description, the wife and the husband's needs are not very different—they both want to take care of family. Yet, their needs ARE different.

What makes their needs so different? The difference here is a matter of definition. Basically, we have two caring people who want to help family. However, they may define family differently. The wife's definition is focused on the nuclear family (husband, wife, children) whereas the husband's definition of family includes the extended family. Thus, their definition of “family” is the source of their conflict.

(As I said before, I could be wrong in this assumption. There could be some other reason for his decision. For instance, maybe he is uncomfortable dealing with strangers. However, if it is a different reason, it is still a need of his that is coming in conflict with his wife's need and the process for resolution remains the same).

2) Fully understanding those needs. When there is a conflict of needs, the first step is to discuss those needs and understand what they are. "Maybe I misunderstood, but I thought we wanted this property to be an investment for our daughter's education. Can we discuss what our plans are so that we can both fully understand the other and reach a decision about what to do?" Such a question needs to be said in a concerned but unemotional tone. In addition, an appropriate time to discuss the problem needs to be agreed upon so that they are both prepared and in the right emotional state to calmly approach the discussion: “When would be a good time for you to discuss this?”

If we can pause to understand how the other person's needs are not unreasonable, we have the first step towards seeking compromise. For instance, the ability to say (and truly mean) “I understand your needs are [this] and they are valid. My needs are [this] and I believe they are valid as well. Is there another way we can resolve this to meet both of our needs?” Obviously, prior to this statement, it may be necessary to ascertain the other person's needs: “I can see this is important to you. Can you explain it to me?”

Frequently, we tend to look at a situation from our own perspective and can't understand how the other is unable to see the importance of our perspective. In fact, the wife labeling the husband's behavior as passive-aggressive shows that she likely believes he is deliberately being unreasonable and resistant to meeting her needs. Certainly, there are passive-aggressive elements here but the issue here is that both people care about family.

By starting with their area of agreement and validating one another's position, they have a greater chance of listening to one another. Researchers Sandra Murray and colleagues (2003) showed that couples who show high regard for one another have more positive outcomes when disagreement occurs. In particular, when a person feels less valued in the relationship they are more likely to see disagreement as rejection and to distance themselves from the relationship. Such distancing prevents resolution of problems.

Thus, the context of disagreement is important. For instance, the marital therapy literature has often espoused the “five-to-one rule” which indicates healthy relationships usually have five positive interactions for every negative interaction. Thus, when couples maintain such a ratio they are more likely to feel valued which allows greater ability to discuss the areas of disagreement without feeling rejected.

3) Coming to an agreement. If both people can clearly see one another's viewpoint, then they have the opportunity for discussion and agreement. Of course, they have to be willing to recognize that the final agreement may not look at all like what they initially had in mind. They need to brainstorm possibilities. This can start with an initial statement of the problem: “I understand that you want to help family members with financial problems. That is very kind of you and I appreciate your need. My need is to provide for our daughter's education and I believe that is important for you, too. Is there a way we can meet both of our needs? Let's brainstorm possibilities.”

The concept of brainstorming is a very specific one. It means to develop a list of ideas no matter how reasonable or unreasonable they may be. During the brainstorming process there is no criticism of the ideas, just an expression of them. The purpose of this is that sometimes even a crazy idea can generate other ideas that could work. In addition, if the ideas aren't criticized, it allows for a free expression of ideas.

For instance:

  • “We can pay our daughter for any work she does on the rental property and put it in a college account.”
  • “We can cut back on expenses in other areas of our life to help support family.”
  • “We can try the realtor at least once and see how that works. I will handle all the details.”
  • “We can sell the house and use the proceeds for the college account.”
  • “We can let our daughter know she is financially responsible for her college education.”
  • “We can set limits on help much we can help family.”

Once a list of possibilities have been developed, then the couple can examine the ideas and determine if any of them can work. To come to an agreement, they need to be willing to fully explore all possibilities and let go of demands for a certain outcome. This process is often referred to as “win-win conflict resolution” as opposed to the common “win-lose” approach described in the above example.

4) When an agreement can't be reached. Sometimes one or both people are set on handling the situation according to their own need. If the couple has high regard for one another this may resolve by one person being asked to accept the other person's need: “I know this is important to you, but I just can't do it right now. I hope you'll support me on this.” Of course, as you can see, this requires a high level of personal insight and ability to communicate.

In the situation described above, both people have become entrenched in their position to the degree that they can't even discuss the problem any longer. Such an entrenchment is more likely to occur if they have not been able to engage in the previous steps described and have instead approached the problem with a high degree of conflict and little regard for the other's position.

In such a case, the individual on the “losing” side may have to decide whether they can live with the outcome. Sometimes there may be needs where a person can't live with the final outcome and may decided to leave the relationship. For instance, if one person wants children and the other person adamantly doesn't. It there is no resolution to such a major issue, then a person needs to ask if they can accept that or if they need to leave. However, if they decide to accept it and stay, then the next step is to truly let it go.

5) How to let go. In this particular situation that first occurred in 2000, the most important aspect at this point in time is for the wife to learn to let go. This is not a solvable situation. The problem, however, is that she believes that it is solvable. She believes that if she can just find the right words, get the right help, she can get through to her husband and convince him to see the situation from her point of view. However, at this point, that is not possible. Already, too much anger, crying, and avoidance has occurred. This is a “hot” topic that just the mention of it will create tension and conflict. It's also possible that it could have undermined feeling valued in the relationship which means that the more important issue at this point is how to repair the relationship.

Apparently, she has already decided that she is not going to leave him over this issue as it has not changed in 14 years, so it does not appear to be a deal-breaker for her. Therefore, she has to decide to let it go. That doesn't mean just to say that her husband “won” and she shouldn't say anything more, but letting it go means forgiving and moving on. This is important for her sake due to the stress this has caused her (i.e. hair falling out). In other words, she needs to recognize “This situation is not going to change. Am I going to let it poison my relationship or am I going to focus on what is good in the relationship?”

The article “Struggling to Forgive: An Inability to Grieve” discusses further forgiving transgressions, whether intentional or unintentional. Most transgressions involve loss. In this instance, the wife feels the loss of not being able to provide for her daughter in the way she wants. Therefore, she needs to grieve this loss so as to be able to let go. This is a process. It is not just simply changing her thinking. However, grieving eventually allows a person to come to acceptance. In this case, the wife is stuck in the denial stage of grief. She is still trying to find a way to convince her husband. Instead, she may need to say to herself “I'm not going to be able to solve this.” Once she fully recognizes this, she is likely to have all sorts of emotions such as anger and sadness. She needs to be able to release these emotions but in a private way such as by writing about them or talking to a trusted friend.

You might say that she has already been emotional and that hasn't helped her come to any resolution. Why would grieving be any different? The difference is in the focus. The focus of her emotions has been on the frustration of trying to solve the problem. Instead, the grief emotions are focused on the idea that she can't solve the problem. As a result, such a focus can eventually lead to an acceptance or forgiveness. Being able to forgive is important for her as well as her marriage.


Murray, S.L., Bellavia, G.M., Rose, P. and Griffin, D.W. (2003). Once Hurt, Twice Hurtful: How Perceived Regard Regulates Daily Marital Interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84,126–147. DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.1.126


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