30 Core Disagreements Couples Encounter
Emerging research on what couples fight about, and relationship quality.
Posted December 8, 2019 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
What are the most common things couples fight about? Money, sex, who takes out the trash, who has a wandering eye, whether one or the other person feels unattractive, will we stay together, and so on? Surprisingly, though the relevance is high and many sources of disagreement are intuitively obvious, the subject has not been fully articulated—though it's all too familiar to couples, friends, family and coworkers, and, of course, therapists.
Until the current research (Lopes, Buss and Abed, 2019), psychologists have not systematically looked at what issues couples disagree on, or developed a standardized way to measure disagreement. It's important to have a tool like this in order to see what sources of disagreement are most problematic and how different bones of contention affect different aspects of the relationship. When breaking up isn't an option to make problems go away, and checking out emotionally, psychologically, sexually, and spiritually isn't an appealing alternative, what is the best way to deal with conflict and ensure satisfaction?
The face of relationships is changing. According to recent surveys from the Pew Research Center, marriage is becoming less common and cohabitation more common, divorce continues to rise, fertility rates are falling, and basic features of marriage once taken as a given are morphing right before our eyes.
People are more reluctant to marry, although marriage remains correlated with greater relationship satisfaction on average and survey participants often report wanting to get married. The reasons they give for not marrying: They or their partner aren’t there financially or professionally, may not be able to make the necessary commitment, or they may not be with the right person.
Understanding relationship disagreement on a detailed level is critically important due to increasing rates of divorce and infidelity, the potential for relationship dissatisfaction, abuse and domestic violence, and the negative impact on children and society. Given how reluctant people are to marry, getting granular about disagreement and dealing with it before taking the plunge makes marriage a less iffy prospect. If your relationship can't stand the strain of prenuptial exploration, let alone the conflicts which come up around wedding planning, rushing into commitment unprepared is ill-advised.
The Anatomy of Marital Conflict
To zoom in on disagreement and develop a needed tool for the relationship psychological toolbox, Lopes and colleagues developed a three-stage study.
In the first stage, they recruited dozens of participants to survey all the causes they report for disagreements in relationships. The raw data had 83 different reasons for couples disagreement. Through various statistical techniques, they broke this list down into the smallest group of significant components, distilling overlapping factors into single items. There were 30 items which covered all the disagreement bases in the final Reasons for Disagreements in Romantic Relationships Scale (RDRRS):
- Not showing enough love or affection.
- Lack of communication.
- One not paying enough attention to the other.
- Not being appreciated.
- Talking to an ex-girlfriend or ex-boyfriend.
- Being possessive.
- Past relationships.
- Whose friends we hang around more.
- Who does more work.
- Not showing up when supposed to.
- Sharing responsibilities.
- One wants sex, the other doesn’t.
- Frequency of sex.
- Sexual acts.
- Telling private information about relationships to others.
- Who’s boss.
- Who’s in control.
- What to wear.
- Goals in life.
- Future plans.
- Who should pay for something.
- One uses all of the other’s money.
These 30 specific disagreements, in turn, fell into 6 unique component groups:
- Inadequate Attention or Affection
- Jealousy and Infidelity
- Chores and Responsibilities
- Control and Dominance
- Future Plans and Money
Disagreement in Newlyweds
They they tested the RDRRS with recently married heterosexual couples in two waves—early on in marriage and then a few years later.
In the first wave, they recruited 214 people in their first year of marriage. The majority had been living together for over a year, ranging in age from 18 to 36 years old for women, and to 41 years old for men. They took the RDRRS, reported on demographic factors, completed measures of relationship and sexual satisfaction, and commented on whether or not they thought they were likely to have an extramarital relationship within five years. The second wave, with 138 of the original group responding, was completed three years later.
Statistical analysis showed the RDRRS was effective in estimating marital disagreement, and that the issues couples identified were generally consistent over time, as was the frequency of different types of disagreement.
Several interesting patterns emerged from the statistical analysis, at least in this group of study participants. Jealousy and Infidelity tended to trend downward after a few years of marriage, Control and Dominance issues were significantly correlated only with husband’s higher income, and more religious men reported less disagreement over Jealous and Infidelity factors.
Overall, men and women reported the same frequency of different types of differences. Although the frequency of differences did not change significantly over the three years of marriage, relationship satisfaction improved over time, suggesting that couples adapted to a baseline level of disagreement—whatever the pattern for that particular couple—presumably either resolving issues and/or becoming used to the status quo.
The study found that women were less satisfied when there was more disagreement about Control and Dominance, that as women grew older there was greater disagreement about Infidelity and Jealousy, that women's sexual satisfaction was lower when there was greater disagreement about Chores and Responsibilities, and that women were more likely to guess they’d have an affair in five years when there was greater disagreement around Inadequate Attention or Affection.
The Future of Disagreement
While ongoing work is needed to validate the Reasons for Disagreement in Romantic Relationships Scale with a greater diversity of couples and relationship stages and lengths, the RDRRS is a useful, frank road map that couples, the burgeoning dating industry, therapists, and researchers can use to better understand this important subject.
As the RDRRS is tested with more groups, it will be interesting to see whether the patterns found in younger newlyweds hold up, or whether, as is more likely, more nuanced patterns emerge. As we begin to understand the complex relationships among socioeconomic factors, emotional and psychological elements, and how they connect with common sources of disagreement, we will develop a better understanding of the anatomy of relationship function and dysfunction.
Learning how successful couples navigate each of the six component areas of disagreement, and each of the specific sources of conflict, will provide insight for couples struggling to engineer more functional, satisfying relationships. When do couples resolve conflict, finding accord? When do couples learn to live with disagreement, agreeing to disagree or even coming to value healthy conflict and difference as needed parts of a living, breathing relationship?
Simply having the list is invaluable for guiding inquiry, fostering insight, and catalyzing change. Couples can adopt a more curious stance, looking at their relationship with compassion and curiosity, to learn how to better get along, realistically working toward vibrant and generative intimacy.
Facebook image: Lordn/Shutterstock
Lopes, GS, Buss DM, Abed MG, Individual Differences and Disagreement in Romantic Relationships, Personality and Individual Differences, November, 2019. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886919306750