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3 Research-Based Ways People Approach Interpersonal Problems

Psychological studies on how personality shapes our approach to conflict.

Key points

  • Interpersonal problems are often a source of confusion and distress, but may be simpler than we imagine.
  • Research shows there are three basic patterns underlying how people approach interpersonal problems.
  • Attachment style and negative personality characteristics shape how we behave in relationships and overall well-being.
  • Understanding the basic patterns can make it easier to regain a balanced perspective and make better decisions when distress is high.

Relationships may defy comprehension, confusing us perhaps beyond their actual difficulty. When we are distressed, lonely, insecure, enthusiastic, passionate or head-over-heels, it’s much harder to sort out what’s happening as mental noise overloads cognitive and emotional capacity.

From the outside, problems are usually clearer. We may not take good advice... we may not even recognize our trusted friends see things we don't want to see. Knowing the big picture of how interpersonal problems may be approached can help ground us in the midst of distress.

Modeling relationships based on basic strivings

Psychologists use “circumplex” (circular) models to understand personality and relationship dynamics. In the late 1950s, Timothy Leary—best known as the pied-piper of the psychedelic movement—conceptualized human motivation springing from strivings for Power and Love. These two independent factors might explain human behavior.

Illustration by author
Control-Affiliation Circle
Source: Illustration by author

The circumplex model has clinical correlations with depression, anxiety and eating disorders, among others. Applied to a limited extent in non-clinical populations, more research is needed on how Control and Assurance-based models1 of interpersonal problems manifest more generally.

How the interpersonal circumplex model drives problem-solving

To provide insight, researchers Wei, Mallinckrodt, Arterberry, Liu and Wang (2021) conducted two studies using factors analysis to reveal fundamental dynamics in how people approach interpersonal problems as a function of personality and related factors.

In the first study, they surveyed in a group of nearly 500 young adults on interpersonal problems and attachment style. Attachment style, measured using the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale, may be secure or insecure, with insecure attachment breaking down into preoccupied/anxious, dismissive and fearful. The Inventory of Interpersonal Problems, based on the Circumplex model, estimates eight negative approaches: Domineering, Vindictive, Cold, Socially Avoidant, Nonassertive, Exploitable, Overly Nurturant and Intrusive.

Attachment avoidance correlated strongest with Cold relationship problems, whereas anxious attachment correlated strongest with Intrusive, followed by Exploitable, Overly Nurturant and Vindictive approaches. There were three cardinal approaches to interpersonal problems, discussed below.

The second study was designed to test the validity of these findings and extend them by including measurement of frustrated psychological needs: relatedness frustration, competence frustration and autonomy frustration.

Participants in the second study were a similar group of young adults who had not participated in the first study. They completed the Inventory of Interpersonal Problems; the Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction and Frustration Scale; anxiety and depression with the Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scales; loneliness via the UCLA Loneliness Scale; psychological well-being with the Psychological Well-Being Scale; life satisfaction using the Brief Multidimensional Students’ Life Satisfaction Scale; and self-esteem with the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.

Three profiles for approaching interpersonal problems

The two studies found the same three core factors were at the heart of interpersonal problems. These three ways of relating emerged as the best statistical fit to the data from both studies.

1. Flexible-Adaptive: As the name suggests, this approach to interpersonal problems is characterized by greater openness and mental agility, correlated with secure attachment. It was found in 48 percent of participants in the first study and 41 percent in the second. Participants with this profile were more likely to be women, 57 percent in the first study and 63 percent in the second.

2. Exploitable-Subservient: This profile is characterized by being deferential and more easily taken advantage of by others, associated with preoccupied attachment. Twenty-seven percent of respondents in the first, and 35 percent in the second, showed this profile. In both studies, 77 percent with this profile were women.

3. Hostile-Avoidant: This profile is characterized by angry withdrawal in the face of interpersonal strain, or “passive-aggressive” behavior, associated with fearful attachment. About a quarter of subjects showed this profile in both studies. There was not a clear difference in sex between the studies, however, with 43 percent women in the first and 63 percent in the second making the Hostile-Avoidant profile.

Frustrated psychological needs track with approach to interpersonal problems. Relatedness frustration was lowest in the Flexible-Adaptive profile and highest in Hostile-Avoidant, followed by Exploitable-Subservient. The authors point out that the association between relatedness frustration and hostile, avoidance suggests a particularly maladaptive cycle.

Competence frustration was higher in Hostile-Avoidant and Exploitable-Subservient patterns, but not stronger in one or the other. Challenges to competence are therefore less likely to produce Flexible-Adaptive ways of relating. Autonomy frustration was similar for all three profiles, suggesting that feeling controlled or pressured does not shape the approach to interpersonal problems, regardless of what we ultimately decide to do with the relationship.

Finally, the Hostile-Avoidant profile was associated with the most negative outcomes, higher depression, anxiety and loneliness, diminished well-being, life satisfaction and self-esteem. Exploitable-Subservient was associated with negative outcomes, though less strongly than Hostile-Avoidant. Flexible-Adaptive was associated with the least negative outcomes.

Implications

This work is interesting and intuitively makes sense. The Flexible-Adaptive approach is associated with the least problems, and presumably better outcomes—future research could look at how people address problems together. We'd expect the Flexible-Adaptive approach to work well in more situations, whereas Hostile-Avoidant people would have the most trouble, especially together.

The three problem-solving profiles track with attachment. This makes sense, and fits with prior work on attachment and relationships. For instance, helpless-hostile parenting, associated with fearful and disorganized attachment, is associated with trauma transmission from parent to child. Likewise, parenting style characterized by excessive control, intrusiveness and coldness are associated with future risk of children getting into dysfunctional relationships. Similar patterns underlie adult dysfunctional relationships (which co-authors and I term "irrelationship").

Those seeking greater satisfaction can use this work, with related research on changing personality, to identify what’s working and what’s not, and make intentional adaptive changes. Noticing which profile we tend to use, and which we do not, can help us to pause and consider alternatives, before forging ahead with regrettable behaviors.

References

1. Psychologist Jeremy S. Wiggins based the “Interpersonal Circumplex” model on Leary’s work. He created a system of personality based on dimensions of dominance-submissiveness (Control) and warmth-coldness (Affiliation). These dimensions can be visualized on a circle, with Control forming the vertical axis and Affiliation the horizontal axis. The circle is divided by eight lines like the spokes on a wheel (click for illustration), representing different degrees of dominance and tendency to connect with others. Starting at the top is Ambitious-Dominant, going counterclockwise toward the colder side first to Arrogant-Calculating, Cold-Quarrelsome, Aloof-Introverted, Unassured-Submissive, and then heading to the warmer side to Unassuming-Ingenuous, Warm-Agreeable, and Gregarious-Extraverted before returning to the top at Ambitious-Dominant.

Wei, M., Mallinckrodt, B., Arterberry, B. J., Liu, S., & Wang, K. T. (2021, June 3). Latent Profile Analysis of Interpersonal Problems: Attachment, Basic Psychological Need Frustration, and Psychological Outcomes. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cou0000551

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