Is Bickering Really That Bad for Your Relationship?
New research shows that couples who bicker may have better relationships.
Posted Jan 19, 2019
There’s been a great deal of bickering in the political world, from the disputes in Washington, D.C. over border wall funding to the U.K.'s own highly-charged disputes over Brexit. Journalists and op-ed writers in the U.S. are comparing the political atmosphere to a sandbox, complete with “squabbles, antics, and tantrums.” Although such behavior by people whom you expect to resolve their disagreements in an adult manner seems completely unproductive, is it possible that in your own relationships, bickering might not be that bad?
It has long been known in the relationship literature that conflicts must inevitably arise between close romantic partners. Consider your own relationship. Do you have a long-running difference of opinion with your partner on what is a comfortable temperature in your home? Are you constantly turning down the thermostat only to find that your partner has turned it back up? Do you complain that you can’t stand the heat, while your partner claims to be perennially shivering? Eventually, from a relationship expert’s point of view, you and your partner will need to come to some sort of compromise rather than experience a continuous low level of annoyance with each other. However, the fact that you disagree doesn’t necessarily spell doom and gloom for your relationship’s future.
Emotional expression, and the response to those emotions, play important roles in all relationships. According to University of Friburg (Germany) psychologists Tamara Luginbuehl and Dominick Schoebi (2019), “participants of a social interaction must show an appropriate emotional response when a situation demands it,” because “to be adaptive, individuals’ emotions need to change in response to the demands of the situation in which they are elicited” (p. 1). In a close relationship, in other words, if one partner expresses anger, the other partner needs to be able to respond to that anger — just as if a partner shows joy, the other partner should respond to that as well. You do not want to be in a relationship in which your emotional reactions go unacknowledged by your partner. However, there are some people who show what the German authors refer to as an “inert emotion dynamic,” meaning that they are resistant to the expression of emotions by their partners. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who have an “erratic emotion dynamic” bounce all over the place when their partner expresses an emotion.
Ideally, then, your response to your partner’s expression of emotion, whether it’s love or anger, should show “flexible and event-contingent responding.” When your partner complains about the ice-cold temperatures in your home, rather than ignore the complaint or start to shout and yell, you would ideally acknowledge the emotion and then try to pave the way toward that all-important compromise. As the German authors note, “When partners try to provide support, solve a conflict, or capitalize on a positive event, emotional responses can facilitate effective interpersonal engagement” (p. 3). Bickering might feel bad at the time, but if you and your partner can use the emotions you perceive in each other to strike a responsive chord, the ultimate result will benefit your relationship.
Another point to keep in mind is that the kind of negative affect you experience from bickering, unlike the kind that comes from a bitter and ugly argument, is what Luginbuehl and Schoebi call “soft” negative affect (versus “hard”). The soft kind of negative affect signals to your partner that you’re unhappy, and could therefore provoke a sympathetic response. Hard anger only leads to defensiveness or reciprocation.
Across two studies, the Friburg psychologists tested the proposal that people who reacted with either inert or erratic emotion dynamics would have poorer relationships, because they would be perceived as less responsive by their partners. In the first study, a sample of 44 young adults (average age of 22; 38 women) provided four sets of scores per day over four consecutive weeks, in which they reported on events within their relationships (tensions or intimate moments) and their corresponding emotional states. They also rated their relationship satisfaction and provided data on their own emotional states. The measure of “inertia” derived from these emotion ratings consisted of a formula that took into account the emotion rating of the previous day and the emotion rating of the current day. This study showed that people high and low on the emotional inertia scale were less reactive to conflict with their partners, but those high in negative affect (either hard or soft) were less satisfied in their relationships.
The next study looked at the interactive effects of people’s emotional responsiveness to their partners in actual couples. Using a sample of 103 couples (24 to 59 years old, average relationship length of 10 years), Luginbuehl and Schoebi obtained the same data as in the first study, but also included two follow-up surveys after 6 and 12 months. Also, taking advantage of the fact that they were testing both members of a couple, the authors asked participants each to rate their perceptions of their partner’s responsiveness (e.g., understanding, supportive, affectionate, loving).
With the couple data in hand, the authors were able to establish, as they had predicted, that the partners of people high in inertia felt that their partners were less responsive to them. Thus, partners who don’t respond at all, or who respond too extremely, are perceived by their partners as uncaring and unsupportive. Over time, such lack of responsiveness, the authors found, set the stage for lower relationship dynamics. As the authors conclude, “emotional flexibility” is the key to effective relationship and “a lack of context-sensitive emotional responding reflects a key vulnerability factor for relationships under stress” (p. 14).
The finding that being emotionally responsive to your partner during the good and the bad times suggests, then, that there can indeed be adaptive value in bickering. To ignore completely the unhappiness or frustration of your partner sends the signal that you don’t care, and to over-react with outrage sends that very same signal. Bickering, which is a form of “soft” negative affect, means that you’re engaging with your partner’s difference of opinion without letting the emotions get out of control.
To sum up, the fact that bickering may not be bad for your personal relationship may not solve the problems of world or national leaders who can’t get along. However, with your closest romantic partner, a low-level difference of opinion that you can work together to resolve may actually promote your long-term fulfillment over time.
Luginbuehl, T., & Schoebi, D. (2019). Emotion dynamics and responsiveness in intimate relationships. Emotion. Doi: 10.1037/emo0000540