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When You Dislike Your Loved One's Romantic Partner

Conflict among friends and family members over chosen partners is common.

Key points

  • Disliking a loved one's romantic partner throws relationships out of balance and makes for discomfort.
  • The affective component of one's attitude is likely a stronger driver of relationship decisions.
  • Pushing too strongly against a loved one's partner can create psychological reactance.
Jessica Da Rosa/Unsplash
Source: Jessica Da Rosa/Unsplash

Many of us are fortunate to have friends and family members with wonderful spouses and partners. However, conflict among friends and family members over chosen partners is common. Below, we review some of the reasons we may experience conflict over a loved one’s romantic relationship.

Balance Theory

A seminal theory in social psychology is Heider’s balance theory (1946). Heider proposed that relationships which are balanced are comfortable and more likely to endure over the long term. A relationship is balanced when there is reciprocity in either positive or negative feelings. For example, if I like Dave and Dave likes me, that relationship is balanced. Further, if I like Dave and Dave likes me, and Dave and I both dislike Roger, the relationships among the three of us are balanced as well. An imbalance can occur when I like Dave and Dave likes me, but I like Shelby and Dave dislikes Shelby. Although Dave and I like one another, we don’t share similar feelings for Shelby, and that can cause strain on both my relationship with Dave and my relationship with Shelby.

We often have positive relationships with our friends and family members, so when a friend or family member falls in love with a romantic partner whom we dislike, that makes all of the affected relationships more uncomfortable and less likely to last over the long term. For example, my friend Lisa* dated a man named Jake. Lisa’s friend Sharon couldn’t stand Jake. Sharon knew that Jake had cheated on his previous partner and she didn’t trust him to remain faithful to Lisa. Sharon discovered that Jake was unfaithful to Lisa early in their relationship and cautioned Lisa about continuing her relationship with Jake. Lisa not only continued dating Jake but eventually, she married him. Sharon refused to attend the wedding and ended her friendship with Lisa. The relationships between Lisa, Sharon, and Jake were imbalanced and uncomfortable. In cases where individuals are unable to overcome these negative feelings, one of the relationships often ends, as Lisa and Sharon’s friendship did.

Attitude Components

Many researchers believe there are three components to our attitudes (see Kassin et al., 2011): the cognitive component (our thoughts), the affective component (our feelings), and the behavioral component (our actions). Ideally, these three components match one another, but sometimes we can have mixed feelings toward individuals.

Consider the example of my friend Lisa related above. Lisa may have positive feelings toward Jake (“I love Jake”) and positive behaviors toward Jake (Lisa married Jake) but she may still have some negative thoughts about him (“Jake has cheated before, and I believe that he might be unfaithful again”). In this example, Lisa’s feelings are most likely a stronger attitude component than her beliefs. However, if we consider Sharon’s attitude toward Jake, she most likely has negative thoughts (“I think Jake will cheat on Lisa”) and feelings (“I don’t feel happy about Jake and Lisa’s relationship”) toward Jake. When our loved ones choose romantic partners we dislike, they may be more motivated by their feelings for their partners than their beliefs about whether their partners may make suitable significant others. When making relationship decisions, we often rely on emotions rather than rational thoughts (Rego et al., 2016).

Psychological Reactance

When our friends or family members express their dislike for our romantic partners, we may experience psychological reactance, that is, attitude change in the opposite direction of what is advocated (see Kassin et al., 2011). For example, if Sharon expressed her dislike for Jake and tried to convince Lisa to dislike Jake as well, Lisa might actually begin to like or love Jake even more strongly. Research by Wright et al. (1992) suggests that when others try to influence our relationship decisions, we may change our attitudes in the opposite direction of what they advocate because of our desire to maintain our independence. Especially in individualistic cultures such as the U.S., we don’t like others to tell us how to think or what to feel. Therefore, when friends or family members try to influence our relationship decisions, that can backfire. We might become defensive of our own behavior or relationships and therefore become more committed to those same romantic relationships our friends or family members oppose.

Positive Illusions

Our friends and family members may dislike our romantic partners because we see our own romantic partners through “rose-colored glasses.” It is common in romantic relationships to engage in what researchers call “partner enhancement” or “positive illusions.” Both terms refer to the fact that we tend to see our romantic partners positively, and sometimes unrealistically so (Morry et al., 2010; Conley et al., 2009). Partner enhancement is common in both same-sex and heterosexual relationships and is associated with greater relationship satisfaction (Conley et al., 2009). Furthermore, research shows that we value the positive traits which our partners display more so than other characteristics (Fletcher et al., 2000). For example, if Lisa feels that Jake is loving and supportive, she might come to value those characteristics more than faithfulness. Similarly, when we recognize that our partners possess negative characteristics, we may downgrade the importance of those characteristics and upgrade the importance of the positive traits our significant others do possess.

The Inevitability of Staying

Even if we recognize that we are in unsatisfying relationships, the decision to leave the relationship may be a much more difficult decision to make than the decision to stay in the relationship. When we have invested a lot of time or resources in our relationships, such as when we share housing or children with our partners, those investments make it much more difficult to leave those relationships (Adams, 1965; Copp et al., 2015). We are strongly biased toward continuing relationships, even unhappy relationships, once we have invested in them (Rego et al., 2016). Further, research suggests that the decision to stay in a relationship is the “default” choice, whereas leaving the relationship requires a major change in behavior. “People who do nothing—who wake up and go about their day as usual—will have stayed in their relationship at the end of the day… whereas staying occurs via inertia, leaving requires great effort… The reasons to ‘leave’ a relationship might need to be much stronger or more intense than the reasons to ‘stay” (Machia & Ogolsky, 2020).

Your Opinions Matter

Although pushing too hard can cause psychological reactance, it is also the case that when friends and family members share their concerns about our less-than-ideal partners or relationships, individuals are more likely to end those relationships (Copp et al., 2015). Furthermore, our romantic relationships are likely to be happier and more successful when our friends and family members support those relationships (Sinclair et al., 2014). It may require patience and it may cause discomfort, but don’t give up on your loved ones who are in relationships with individuals you dislike. Your friendship and support will be critical if they do choose to leave those relationships in the future.

*All names have been changed to ensure privacy.


Adams, J. S. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2, 267–299.

Conley, T. D., Roesch, S. C., Peplau, L., & Gold, M. S. (2009). A test of positive illusions versus shared reality models of relationship satisfaction among gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39(6), 1417-1431. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2009.00488.x

Copp, J. E., Giordano, P. C., Longmore, M. A., & Manning, W. D. (2015). Stay-or-leave decision making in nonviolent and violent dating relationships. Violence and Victims, 30(4), 581-599.

Fletcher, G. O., Simpson, J. A., & Thomas, G. (2000). Ideals, perceptions, and evaluations in early relationship development. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 933-940. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.79.6.933

Heider, F. (1946). Attitudes and cognitive organization. The Journal of Psychology, 21(1), 107-112.

Kassin, S. M., Fein, S., & Markus, H. R. (2011). Social Psychology, 8th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Machia, L. V., & Ogolsky, B. G. (2020). The reasons people think about staying and leaving their romantic relationships: A mixed-method analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167220966903.

Morry, M. M., Reich, T., & Kito, M. (2010). How do I see you relative to myself? Relationship quality as a predictor of self- and partner-enhancement within cross-sex friendships, dating relationships, and marriages. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150(4), 369-392. doi:10.1080/00224540903365471

Rego, S., Arantes, J., & Magalhães, P. (2016). Is there a Sunk Cost Effect in Committed Relationships? Current Psychology, 1-12.

Wright, R., Wadley, V., Danner, M., & Phillips, P. (1992). Persuasion, reactance, and judgments of interpersonal appeal. European Journal of Social Psychology, 22(1), 85-91. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420220109.

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