What Disagreements Would Lead you to Unfriend or Break Up?

The surprising news about what disputes lead to unfriending or breaking up

Posted Feb 23, 2016

Couples often disagree about topics within the bounds of their relationship, ranging from whether to have sex  to more mundane matters such as whose turn it is to take out the trash, clean the litter box, or pick the kids up from daycare. They may also disagree about topics somewhat external to their relationship but impinge on it nevertheless, such as how to handle an annoying relative or neighbor. As you move further outside the realm of the relationship itself into the area of opinions and views on ideological issues, the disagreements take on a different quality. In an election year, particularly one as contentious as 2016’s presidential race, it’s possible that you and your partner end up on opposite sides of the spectrum. Before you know it, you’re having your own rancorous debates at home that mirror those that play out across the country and show up on your TV screen.

Disagreements about politics affect more than close relationships. If you’ve ever been at a family gathering where heated arguments develop between opposing sides on a polarizing issue, you know how unpleasant the experience can be. It’s also possible you’ve been dragged into these arguments either while they’re taking place, or after you get home when you and your partner start to accuse each other of supporting one side or the other on that issue. You may also realize for the first time that your partner is far more conservative on the issue than you thought (or more liberal). The argument could become a good opportunity for values clarification but instead, it becomes a replay of the acrimonious dinner conversation.

Though about so-called “outside” issues (such as abortion rights, gay marriage, the Affordable Health Care Act), political arguments that take place at home may tap directly into the inner dynamics of a couple’s relationship. The exact issue may not be as important to you as the way in which you feel your partner either discounts your opinions or becomes a devil’s advocate just to annoy you. All of the elements that play into the way you resolve actual couple problems now move to a different location, but they are the same basic relationship dynamics.

Political disagreements can also migrate to social media platforms. According to a recent Pew Research poll, liberals are more likely than conservatives to unfriend their Facebook opponents than are conservatives. Liberals may even break up with own personal friends over political disagreements. According to this source, 44% of Facebook users who consider themselves “consistently liberal” unfriend others who don’t share their views compared to 31% of the “consistent conservatives.” When consistent liberals get into a fight with their actual friends (i.e. not just Facebook connections), they are more likely to drop them (24%) than are consistent conservatives. The liberals will also stop talking politics when they get too annoyed by their conversation partners.

In part, the reason that liberals seem harsher than conservatives when disagreements occur with their friends is because liberals expose themselves to a wider range of views than do conservatives. The consistent conservatives connect on Facebook, and in real life, with people whose share their opinions (47%) than do liberals (32%). However, in person, both consistent conservatives (47%) and liberals (59%) find themselves arguing about politics with their discussion partners.

Thus, although some pundits worry that the U.S. population is blasé about politics and that only small segments truly care about the debates that sweep the media, it seems as though a fair number of people on the political spectrum bring their ideologies into their social lives.

In terms of close relationships, namely intimate partners, it’s not clear how all of this would translate. We can get some guidance from a study by Jennifer Bevan, Veronica Hefner, and Amanda Love in the Communication Studies department at Chapman University (in Orange, CA). Bevan and her team investigated the styles used by couples in resolving recurring conflicts, which included social topics such as politics, religion, and ideological differences. The 261 participants in the online study ranged from 18 to 65 years of age and slightly under half were college students.

Only a small number (3%) of recurring arguments involved social issues; the majority of both occasional and recurring arguments concerned problematic behaviors or personality, jealousy, communication, use of leisure time, sex, and chores. In the great scheme of things, close partners don’t seem to spend a great deal of time arguing about politics. It’s likely that people on opposite sides of the political divide, as revealed in the Pew study, just don’t get into close relationships with each other. Their debates about politics are more likely to cause disruption when other people (the infamous “drunk uncle”) are in the room.

Nevertheless, we can glean some important insights from the Bevan et al. study. In those recurring arguments, couples tended to try to work for some sort of compromise rather than avoid the argument. However, in between arguments, it was also more likely that couples ruminated over the area of disagreement, creating the possibility of remaining stressed about the argument long after it was over. Indeed, this might have been a reason that the argument lingered over time.

The tendency to choose partners whose views are similar to your own, also called “assortative mating,” can reduce the likelihood, then, that you’ll recreate the debates held by national figures at your own dining room table. Furthermore, because in the grand scheme of things, those distant ideological differences don’t weigh as heavily on you as do the running problems of daily life, it’s likely that your relationship quality won’t go through seasonal highs and lows along with the election cycle.

With your friends, relatives and coworkers outside of your closest relationship, though, it’s possible that the same sort of rumination couples go through could characterize you when you and these other people in your life don’t agree on what’s going on in the world.

Ideological arguments don’t always have to create negative outcomes, however. If some of that rumination involves you learning something new or considering positions you hadn’t thought of before, this could be an opportunity for growth. Maybe you didn’t completely understand the shrinking glacier problem, or perhaps you hadn’t paid enough attention to the high interest rates that students are charged for their college tuition. Similarly, because Bevan and her colleagues found that people in close relationships do seek compromises in their long-running disagreements, it’s also possible to carry that collaborative style into your other long-term but non-intimate relationships.

To sum up, 2016 will undoubtedly be an interesting year for politics, and if you use the issues that arise as opportunities for personal growth, it may also be an interesting year for your feelings of personal fulfillment.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016


Bevan, J. L., Hefner, V., & Love, A. (2014). An exploration of topics, conflict styles, and rumination in romantic nonserial and serial arguments. Southern Communication Journal, 79(4), 347-360. doi:10.1080/1041794X.2014.918645