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The Two-Edged Sword of Holding Onto Your Outlook in Conflict

It feels good to hang onto your position, but research says it can backfire.

Key points

  • Researchers examined the link between stepping outside one’s outlook and counterproductive responses.
  • The study showed that people who see arguments through a different lens react in less detrimental ways.
  • Seeing disagreements in another way might allow people to be less guarded.
  • It’s not possible to make causal claims from this research.
PNW Production/Pexels
Source: PNW Production/Pexels

This post refers only to nonabusive relationships.

Envision moments when you reacted to your partner as fruitfully as you aspired to, when you were open, kind, and constructive. Just now, at least one moment probably came to mind; if you give it some time, others will likely arise.

Now, let’s remember that you’re human, so you’re just not going to hit that mark every time. You’re going to have moments when you don’t react to your partner as effectively as you would have hoped. Perhaps that means uttering words that hurt your partner’s feelings, paying no attention to what they’re trying to tell you, blaming, passing judgment, invalidating your partner, getting defensive, being hostile, speaking harshly, shutting down, pulling away, or combining some of these. You’re going to do something. And because your partner is human too, well, you see where I’m going. What’s important is trying to keep moments like these in check. Research reveals that when counterproductive reactions like this fill up too much of the emotional space between couples when they’re having disagreements, it weakens their bond. More specifically, such couples have almost equal levels of favorable to unfavorable reactions during arguments, whereas couples who are on sound, secure footing react in an effective, fruitful way five times as often as they respond in a hurtful manner.

So, what might help people shield their own reactions against veering in a damaging direction? A pair of researchers explored this question by looking at the act of moving beyond one's own way of seeing a situation and stepping into a partner’s shoes. This is also known as “perspective-taking.” What could be the value in trying this? The researchers cited the “risk regulation model,” which elucidates the way in which people manage emotional risks with their partners. This model notes that, on the one hand, the reward of emotional intimacy and connection with a loving, caring partner requires a person to lower their guard and rely on their partner, exposing themselves to the possibility of getting hurt. On the other hand, if (for some reason) a person believes their partner doesn’t respect them and will probably rebuff them, they’ll be more inclined to raise their guard and shrink how much they rely on their partner. What could this look like in the everyday life of a relationship? It could involve pulling back on how much a person reaches out to their partner for support, seeing their partner in a disapproving light, or insulting their partner. The researchers cited scholarship to support the idea that perspective-taking might help people evade putting up their guard and reacting to their partner in damaging ways.

As their researchers noted, their work is the first explicit examination of the potential for perspective-taking to reduce the harmful responses people employ to insulate themselves emotionally. Their findings revealed that people generally tended to react in more harmful ways when their partner was hurtful. However, this pattern broke for people who used perspective-taking by considering their partner’s standpoint or envisioning how they might feel if they were in their partner’s position. Then, they reacted to their partner’s disagreeableness with less detrimental responses, not more.

The investigators pointed out that we can’t say that perspective-taking literally causes people to respond in less damaging ways, as the research design doesn’t allow for this. Moreover, they noted that it’s still unclear what exact kinds of perspective-taking may be effective, in part because two different kinds of perspective-taking were blended together in this work. Having said that, the researchers referenced their own and others’ work to spotlight their point that taking time to step out of our own world and into that of our partner is, in all likelihood, well worth it.


Gottman, J. M. (1998). Psychology and the study of marital processes. Annual Review of Psychology, 49(1), 169–197.

Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Collins, N. L. (2006). Optimizing assurance: The risk regulation system in relationships. Psychological Bulletin, 132(5), 641–666.

Reid, C. J., & Overall, N. C. (2024). The attenuating effect of perspective taking on negative behavior in relationship interactions. Journal of Family Psychology.

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