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Sex Roles, Vol. 47, Nos. 9/10, November 2002 ( C 2002) The Authenticity of Conflict Resolutions Among Adult Couples: Does Women’s Other-Oriented Behavior Reflect Their True Selves? Kristin D. Neff1,3 and Susan Harter2 In this study we examined how men and women typically resolve conflicts with relationship partners (by meeting the self’s need, the other’s need, or through compromise) and the authenticity of resolutions and their relation to psychological health. Data were collected using a questi
  Sex Roles, Vol. 47, Nos. 9/10, November 2002 (  C   2002) The Authenticity of Conflict Resolutions Among AdultCouples: Does Women’s Other-Oriented Behavior ReflectTheir True Selves? Kristin D. Neff  1,3 and Susan Harter 2 In this study we examined how men and women typically resolve conflicts with relationshippartners (by meeting the self’s need, the other’s need, or through compromise) and the au-thenticity of resolutions and their relation to psychological health. Data were collected usinga questionnaire given to 251 men and 251 women (aged 18–75 yrs) who were in heterosexualrelationships.Resultsshowedthatmostwomen(butnotmen)whoresolvedconflictsbymeet-ing their partners’ needs rather than their own thought that this was inauthentic behavior thatthey adopted to avoid negative repercussions from their partners. For all participants, inau-thenticity and a lack of partner validation was linked to poorer psychological health. Resultssuggest that women’s other-oriented relationship behavior does not necessarily stem from theauthentic self. KEY WORDS:  gender-roles; interpersonal conflicts; authenticity. The tendency of individuals to focus on meetingpersonalversusinterpersonalneedshastypicallybeendescribed in terms of two sharply opposing social ori-entations, which are often linked to gender (Cross &Madson, 1997; Gilligan, 1982, 1988; Jordan, Kaplan,Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991). Men are said to haveanautonomousfocusonindividualfreedom,indepen-dence, and personal goals, whereas women are saidto have a connected focus on interpersonal relation-ships, responsibility, and meeting the needs of oth-ers. There is growing consensus, however, that thesetwo orientations have been too sharply dichotomizedand that a healthy developmental goal for both menand women is the balanced integration of these twoconcerns (Allen, Hauser, Bell, & O’ Connor, 1994;Colby & Damon, 1992; Emde & Buchsbaum, 1990; 1 Department of Educational Psychology, University of Texas,Austin, Texas. 2 University of Denver, Department of Psychology, Denver,Colorado. 3 To whom correspondence should be addressed at Departmentof Educational Psychology, George Sanchez Building 504, Uni-versity of Texas, Austin, Texas 78712-1296; e-mail: Grotevant & Cooper, 1988; Guisinger & Blatt, 1994;Hill & Holmbeck, 1986; Selman, 1989). For instance,Harter et al. (1997) recently identified a trichotomyof relationship styles that reflect either balance or im-balance between autonomy and connectedness: self-focused autonomy (i.e., an overemphasis on auton-omy at the expense of connection), other-focusedconnection (i.e., an overemphasis on connection atthe expense of autonomy), and mutuality (i.e., a bal-anced integration of concerns for autonomy and con-nection). Among a sample of more than 3,000 adults,theyfoundthatmostmenandwomenreportedhavingamutualstyle;themoreextremestylesofself-focusedautonomy or other-focused connection were muchless common. Mutual individuals were also found tobebetteradjustedpsychologicallyintermsoftheabil-ity to be their true selves as compared to those withthe more extreme styles, especially when paired withmutual partners.A central manifestation of concerns with au-tonomy or connectedness within relationships maybe observed in couples’ resolutions of conflicts be-tween the needs and desires of each partner (Kelley& Thibaut, 1978; Miller, 1986; Spitzberg, Canary, & 403  0360-0025/02/1100-0403/0  C  2002 Plenum Publishing Corporation  404 Neff and Harter Cupach, 1994). A focus on mutuality in relationshipsinvolves the tendency to compromise in conflict sit-uations because both the self’s needs and the other’sneeds are validated and taken into account. A strongfocus on autonomy, however, entails an overempha-sis on personal fulfillment at the expense of a part-ner’s needs and desires, which leads to conflict reso-lutionsthatprioritizetheself’sneedsovertheother’s.A strong focus on connection in the relationship, onthe other hand, may involve placing priority on meet-ing the other’s needs, so that personal desires and as-pirations are relinquished in cases of interpersonalconflict.Anunfortunateliabilityofthecontinualsub-ordination of personal desires, as Miller (1986) andJordan (1991) have argued that women often do, canbe loss of self and inauthenticity. This raises an in-teresting question, however: do women who tend tofocus on meeting the needs of others in relationshipssee this behavior as an expression of their true selves(i.e., a manifestation of a value orientation in whichself-sacrifice is natural and desired)? Or, might somemerely act in this way in order to avoid conflict in therelationship, and thus consciously experience givingup their own needs as false-self behavior (i.e., withthe recognition that these actions do not reflect theirinnerthoughtsandfeelings)?Thedistinctionisanim-portant one.Many feminists (e.g., Bohan, 1993; Tavris, 1997;Watson, 1994; Westkott, 1989) have argued that mod-els of gender differences advanced by theorists suchas Gilligan (1982, 1988) are too “essentialist” in thatthey see orientations toward autonomy and connect-edness as inherent aspects of persons rather thanas responses to the external social environment. AsBohan (1993) wrote, “Essentialists models, thus, por-traygenderintermsoffundamentalattributesthatareconceived as internal, persistent, and generally sepa-rate from the ongoing experience of interaction withthe ... contexts of one’s life” (p. 7). In contrast, thesefeminists take a “social constructionist” approach togender, which posits that differences in social orien-tation are not deeply embedded aspects of self, butareinsteadareactiontopowerinequalitiesembeddedwithinsocialrolesandsituations(Kanter,1977).Fromthe social constructionist perspective, men’s domi-nance is thought to lead to an emphasis on meet-ing the self’s needs, and women’s subordinance toan emphasis on meeting others’ needs, though indi-vidual men and women may display either empha-sis depending upon the position of power they oc-cupy in particular situations (Tavris, 1997; Wainryb& Turiel, 1994; Watson, 1994). These divergent waysof understanding gender differences give rise to dif-fering interpretations of self-sacrificing behavior inconflict situations. From an essentialist point of view,other-oriented behavior on the part of women is re-flective of an underlying connected sense of self, andshould therefore be experienced as true-self behav-ior. From a social constructionist perspective, how-ever, women’s other-oriented behavior is not alwaysan authentic reflection of a more connected sense of self, but is often a situational response that is adoptedfor externally driven pragmatic reasons (Wainryb &Turiel, 1994). From this perspective, therefore, wewould expect many women to experience the sub-ordination of their own needs as false-self behavior.This should especially be the case when women arepairedwithapartnerwhotypicallyputshisownneedsfirst, because one of the primary ways that power im-balances manifest within relationships is in terms of who gets their needs met. Similarly, to the extent mengive up personal needs and desires in the context of a power imbalance—that is, when paired with a part-ner who typically puts  her   own needs first—we wouldalso expect men’s behavior to be experienced asinauthentic.The distinction between “authentic” connected-ness versus “inauthentic” connectedness has impor-tant theoretical implications, and it also has rele-vance to psychological functioning. The act of sac-rificing for another out of an authentic desire to meetthe other’s needs should result in feelings of satis-faction and high self-worth (Batson, Bolen, Cross, &Neuringer-Benefiel,1986),andthusmightbethoughtof as “healthy” connectedness. However, the act of denying one’s needs inauthentically out of a desireto avoid negative repercussions from one’s partneris likely to yield less positive outcomes. Many clin-ical psychologists have pointed to the liabilities of inauthenticity for psychological well-being (Horney,1950; Kohut, 1977; Winnicott, 1965), and research haslinkedfalse-selfbehaviortofeelingsoflowself-worthand depression (Harter, 1997, 1999).More generally, the tendency toward authenticversus inauthentic conflict resolutions is likely to de-pend on the degree of validation and acceptance ac-corded by others to one’s personal wants and desires.Symbolic interactionists have long noted the role thatthe opinions of significant others play in the self-system (Baldwin, 1897, Cooley, 1902; Mead, 1934).Harter and colleagues (Harter et al., 1997; Harter,Marold, Whitesell, & Cobb, 1996) have found thathaving a partner who does not take one’s needs se-riously or grant them legitimacy often leads to the  Authenticity of Conflict Resolutions 405 suppression of the true self and encourages inauthen-ticbehaviordesignedtoplacateothersandavoidtheirdisapproval.Moreover,alackofvalidationfromone’spartner and the suppression of one’s true self maycombine to create even greater impact on psycholog-ical health in the form of low self-esteem and depres-sion within the relationship (Harter, 1999).The present study was designed to explore is-sues of authenticity within relationships by examin-ing how men and women involved in romantic rela-tionshipstypicallyresolveconflictsthatarisebetweenthe needs and desires of each partner. Participantswere asked to describe the way that they usually re-solved conflicts with their partner—by prioritizingtheir own needs, making compromise solutions, orthrough subordinating their own needs (these con-flict resolution styles will subsequently be referredto as “self-prioritizing,” “compromising,” and “self-subordinating”)—and also to indicate if this type of conflict resolution was experienced as authentic orinauthentic behavior. On the basis of Harter et al.’s(1997) findings that most men and women tend tohave a mutual relationship style, we expected thatthe majority of participants would report that theytended to resolve conflicts by compromising. Also,because Harter et al.’s findings did not indicate a gen-der difference in frequencies of the self-focused au-tonomous and other-focused connected relationshipstyles, we did not expect differences in the numberof men and women who reported that they had self-prioritizing or self-subordinating conflict resolutionstyles. However, in line with a social construction-ist perspective on gender differences, we hypothe-sizedthatmanyself-subordinatingwomenwouldper-ceive their actions as inauthentic behavior (aimedat avoiding negative repercussions from their part-ners), rather than as a true expression of their in-ner selves (as would be predicted by an essentialistmodel of gender differences). However, this inau-thentic behavior was primarily expected when self-subordinating women experienced a power imbal-ance in their relationship—in other words, when theyperceived that their partners tended to put theirown needs first. Our expectations regarding the per-ceptions of self-subordinating men were less firm.Nonetheless, on the basis of evidence that both menand women may display self-oriented and other-oriented behavior depending upon situational factors(Tavris, 1997; Watson, 1994), we also hypothesizedthat self-subordinating men would tend to see theirbehavior as false, especially when they were pairedwith a self-prioritizing partner.In order to explore the relation between the au-thenticity of conflict resolution behavior and the mo-tivations underlying such behavior adequately, it wasnecessarytoascertainparticipants’reasonsforadopt-ing different types of conflict resolution. Thus, weasked participants to tell us why they resolved inter-personal conflicts as they did. We expected that thosewho resolved conflicts authentically would give rea-sons that reflected their behaviors in a fairly straight-forward manner, that is, their actions would reflecttheir underlying motives. Compromisers were ex-pected to give reasons that reflected concern withreciprocityintheirrelationships,self-prioritizerswereexpected to be more concerned with personal ful-fillment, and self-subordinators were expected to bemore concerned with the other’s well-being. How-ever, we anticipated that participants who subordi-nated their personal needs  inauthentically  would givedifferent reasons than those who did so authentically,that is, they would focus on the desire to avoid con-flictintherelationship(Miller,1986;Roloff&Cloven,1990).We also asked participants to describe the ef-fects that their manner of conflict resolution had ontheir relationship. The clinical marital literature in-dicates that conflict resolutions that take each part-ner’s needs into account in a balanced and integratedmanner lead to the highest levels of marital stabilityandsatisfaction,whereasafocusonself-onlyconcerns jeopardizes trust and intimacy within relationships(Cahn, 1990; Gray-Little & Burks, 1983; James &Johnson, 1987; Rankin-Esquer, Burnett, Baucom, &Epstein, 1997; Schneider & Schneider, 1991; Steil,1997).Thus,weexpectedthatcompromiserswouldbemostlikelytoreportpositiveeffectsontheirrelation-ships, whereas self-prioritizers would be most likelyto report negative effects. Among self-subordinators,weexpectedthattheeffectsoftheiractionswouldde-pend on their authenticity. Specifically, we expectedthat those who subordinated personal needs out of genuineconcernfortheotherwouldreportmorepos-itive effects on the relationship than those who did soinauthentically, because a lack of sincerity would belikelytoleadtofrustrationandresentmentthatwouldstrain the relationship.Finally, we were interested in particular corre-lates of conflict resolutions that have implications foradjustment. We expected that there would be an as-sociation between the validation given by one’s part-ner in terms of tolerating and respecting one’s viewsand opinions and the ability of participants to resolveconflicts authentically. In previous work (see Harter,  406 Neff and Harter 1999)pathanalysesrevealedaprocessmodelinwhichvalidation by one’s partner predicted one’s ability tobeone’strueself,thatis,thosewhosepartnerslistenedto them and took them seriously reported higher lev-els of authentic behavior than did those whose part-ners were not validating. The ability to be one’s au-thentic self in one’s relationship in turn predicted twoother indices of adjustment: self-esteem and depres-sion. Thus, those unable to be their true selves weremuch more likely to report low self-esteem and de-pressed affect, which indicates that if the authentic-ity of the self is compromised, psychological liabili-ties will ensue (Harter, 1997). In the present study,therefore, we hypothesized that those who receivedlow levels of validation from their partners would bemore likely to report that their conflict resolutionswere inauthentic. We also expected levels of valida-tion to affect the ability of participants to assert theirownneeds,sothatself-subordinatorswouldreportre-ceiving lower levels of validation from their partnersthan would compromisers or self-prioritizers. More-over,weexpectedalackofvalidationandauthenticityto be linked to well-being, so that, for all participants,inauthentic behavior and low levels of partner valida-tion would be associated with lower self-esteem andmore depression within the relationship. In particu-lar, we expected that participants who subordinatedtheir own needs inauthentically would report pooreroutcomes than those who did so authentically. METHODParticipants Couples, who were recruited via announcementsin Denver area newspapers, were sent two surveyquestionnaires(tobecompletedathomeandthenre-turned by mail). It was stipulated that both partnersmust complete a questionnaire in order to participatein the study, but that each partner should completethe questionnaire independently. 4 Couples were paid$20 as an inducement to participate in the study. Par-ticipants ( N  = 502) included 251 adult heterosexualcouples, that is, men and women who were togetherfor1yearormore.Thelengthofcouples’relationshipsranged from 1 to 50 years ( M  = 11 . 39,  SD = 10 . 78). 4 Although most of the questions of interest in this study focusedon subjective individual-level data, such as authenticity or self-esteem, we decided to ask that both partners complete the surveyso that we would have an equal sample of men included in thestudy. The majority of couples (72%) were married; 17%were cohabitating, and 11% were living separately.Sixty percent of participants had children. The ageof participants ranged from 18–75 years ( M   age was38.4 for men and 37.1 for women). The ethnic compo-sition of the sample was as follows: 86% White, 5%Hispanic, 4% Native American, 2% Black, and 2%Asian. The large majority of participants (93%) hadsome college education. Measures Conflict Resolution Questionnaire Information about participants’ conflict resolu-tion behavior—including the perceived authentic-ity, rationale for, and effects of this behavior—wasobtained using a self-report survey questionnaire.The questionnaire contained a combination of open-ended and forced-choice items so that we could di-rectly examine study hypotheses and provide the op-portunity for participants to describe their experi-ences in personal terms. A self-report methodologywas chosen because of the subjective nature of thevariables of interest, such as authenticity, reasons forconflictresolutions,andself-esteem.However,wedidask participants to indicate how they thought theirpartners typically resolved conflicts, so that we coulddetermine the overlap between self-perceptions andpartner perceptions of conflict resolution behavior.First, to ascertain the types of conflicts that natu-rally occurred in participants’ relationships, each par-ticipant was asked to provide a written example of areal-life situation in which their personal needs anddesires conflicted with those of their partners. Then,participants were asked to report how they typicallyresolved conflicts in their relationships given the fol-lowing three choices: “You have not given up yourpersonal need or desire, and explained to your part-ner why the matter was so important to you”; “Youhave given up your personal need or desire in orderto meet the need or desire of your partner”; or “Youhave tried to come up with a compromise solution,even if it meant that neither you nor your partnergot exactly what you wanted.” In order to obtain therationale for this behavior and its perceived effects,participants were then asked to write (as open-endedresponses): “What do you feel is the reason why youhave normally done this?”, and “What effect has thistype of action had on your relationship?” To ascer-tain the authenticity of conflict resolution behaviors,
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