Does Your Partner Try to Destroy Your Other Relationships? (Psychology)

Perhaps you tell your partner everything, and your partner similarly confides in you. Some of what you tell your partner involves your feelings about other people. You might have an older relative who, despite years of regular contact, occasionally upsets you with meddling in your affairs. The situation was bad enough all along, but most recently this relative is telling you that you’re wasting money on your latest home renovation. It’s a pandemic, and you’re spending more time at home, so you see this as a wise investment instead of a frivolous enterprise.

When you share your relative’s opinion with your partner, you’re surprised at how angry this makes your partner. What’s more, your partner points out that this relative is not only meddling too much, but is also patronizing and insulting. As you hear your partner continue to rant about that relative’s behavior, you start to realize just how intrusive it is. Now that you think about it, you decide that maybe it’s time to cut off your relationship with this relative in order to avoid such invasions of your well-being.

A new study by the University of Maryland’s Edward Lemay and colleagues (2020) shows just what happens when people’s partners start to influence how they feel about others outside of the relationship. Familiarly known as creating a “wedge,” this process can further alienate a partner from those outside others. Ironically, your partner’s behavior may not be in your best interest even though, as Lemay et al. observe, relationship satisfaction is strongly related to the belief that partners support each other. Indeed, according to the concept of “responsiveness,” attending to and supporting your partner’s needs and goals should build your bonds of intimacy.

One way people demonstrate responsiveness, unfortunately, turns out to be the basis for developing and expanding wedges between members of the couple and those with whom one of them is in conflict. Lemay and his fellow researchers propose that for you and your partner to feel most satisfied, you need to mitigate the downside of responsiveness with the many potential benefits to relationship satisfaction of showing you understand, support, validate, and care about your partner.

In Lemay et. al’s description, there are three players involved in the wedge-building process. The discloser is the person who confides about being upset with another person. The confidant is the partner who hears this disclosure. Adversaries are the people outside the relationship with whom the conflict exists. The Maryland research team tested a theoretical model that begins with the degree to which you feel emotionally close with your partner, which, in turn, leads you to value responsiveness. The next factor to come into play is the degree to which you need “negativity validation” (i.e., wanting your negative views to be confirmed).

The next step involves negativity-validating behavior. Here’s where the wedge-building comes into play. Your partner, wanting to be close to you, takes that bit of negativity from your disclosure and makes it seem worse than it was. The more your partner wants to maintain closeness, the more your partner may tend take the small pieces of negativity and ensure that they become full-grown barriers. A wedge-building partner will not talk you down from your high levels of conflict with the adversary but instead will use that conflict as a way of demonstrating just how close the two of you are.

In the words of the authors, the problem can be characterized as follows: “Hence, when confidants enact negativity-validating behaviors, disclosers may evaluate their adversaries’ morality more negatively, become less motivated to forgive their adversaries, more motivated to avoid them or seek revenge on them, and less committed to maintaining a relationship with them” (p. 106).

Given the high stakes involved in showing they support their partners, are there any confidants who resist the “negativity bandwagon?” As you might suspect, confidants high in agreeableness (in short, they are “nice”) should be the ones least likely to build wedges. They would be the ones who could find the balance between showing they support you while also helping you overcome the negativity that threatens your outside relationships.

With these theoretical elements in place, the authors conducted a series of seven studies intended to test the key pieces of the model. The first correlational study on an online sample established that there was, as predicted, a set of statistical pathways linking desires for closeness by confidants with validating behaviors that, in turn, led to wedge-like negative attributions to the adversary.

In the next three studies, the researchers turned their participants into confidants by having them read descriptions of hypothetical conflicts with adversaries in which they were experimentally induced either to validate or not validate the feelings of their disclosing partners. Once again, the findings supported the responsiveness-validation model.

The next two studies presented participants with instructions to recall a time in one of their own relationships in which they were the confidants who became upset with an adversary who transgressed against a discloser. The key measures in these studies involved the confidant recommending negative behaviors directed toward the adversary. The types of negative behaviors were typical “wedge-like” actions such as seeking revenge, getting even, avoidance and “reduced benevolence” (i.e., not wanting to make peace). These findings once again suggested that confidants who want to promote closeness can encourage disclosers to adopt more negative behaviors toward the adversary.

Finally, the research team put the behavior of confidants and disclosers into focus by having participants observe a situation in which they discussed what happened the last time an adversarial conflict occurred. Additionally, Lemay and his colleagues examined the role of agreeableness and self-esteem, as well as the length of the relationship and closeness of the discloser to the adversary. The findings showed that responsiveness significantly predicted the tendency for confidants to try to build wedges.

In all of this wedge formation, there was one glimmer of hope that benevolence could prevail, and that involved the degree to which the discloser was close to the adversary. As the authors noted, “This effect may reflect the fact that, independently of their goal to be responsive, confidants consider the costs and benefits of conflict resolution for the discloser when deciding whether to validate negativity”.

The lower likelihood that a confidant would try to undermine a tie with a close adversary may be relevant for thinking about a partner who tries to pry you from your family. A partner who truly cares about you will likely recognize that no matter how upset you may be with a relative or close friend at the moment, the best way to build responsiveness may be to help you, the discloser, achieve a peaceful resolution. The exception might be, as the authors point out, when your partner is trying to protect you from an abusive relationship with an adversary that you don’t recognize as abusive.

In the worst of all possible worlds, the opposite prevails, and your partner is just someone who likes to stir up mischief to see what happens. Such a partner doesn’t have your best interests in mind, and may even want to create a rift between you and your close friends and family in order to maintain exclusive rights to your emotional capital.

Returning to the earlier example, that meddling relative may be annoying from time to time, but that person may also be someone you’ve been close to before and will be close to once again. A partner who recognizes this will refrain from negativity validation the next time you get upset.

To sum up, the best way to maintain peace between your partner and those outside the relationship is to find that balance between being responsive and preserving emotional ties with the others you care about. Finding a partner who manages this delicate balance may just be key to fulfilling relationships with all of the important people in your life.

References: Lemay, E. P., Jr., Ryan, J. E., Fehr, R., & Gelfand, M. J. (2020). Validation of negativity: Drawbacks of interpersonal responsiveness during conflicts with outsiders. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(1), 104–135. doi: 10.1037/pspi0000214.supp (Supplemental)

This post is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses.

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