The Dark Side of Supportive Relationships

February 5, 2020

Loyalty from a loved one that doesn’t include a heavy dose of the objective truth can damage our other relationships.

Imagine that you’ve had a heated argument with a co-worker, and you call up your husband or wife to talk about it.

Your partner may simply listen and give you a chance to vent, or perhaps encourage you to look inside at your own thoughts about the situation. Or they may react in one of these two very common ways.

They may take a side in the dispute and assure you that you were right, your co-worker was wrong, and that you have a right to be upset.

Or your partner may encourage you to look at the conflict objectively and point out reasons why your co-worker may not be so blameworthy after all.

Which of these latter two responses would you prefer? Do you want a partner who unconditionally has your back or one who plays devil’s advocate?

Which is better for you in the long run?

In a recent study, we wanted to explore the contours and repercussions of this common relationship dynamic.

Do We Want Unconditional Support?

If you’re like most people, you probably want a partner who has your back. We all tend to want empathetic partners who understand us, care for our needs, and validate our views.

These qualities—which relationship researchers refer to as interpersonal responsiveness—are viewed as a key ingredient in strong relationships. Research has identified links between having a responsive partner and being happy and well adjusted.

But having an empathetic partner isn’t always a good thing—especially when it comes to your conflicts with others outside the relationship.

When we get into an argument with someone, we tend to minimize our own contribution to the dispute and overstate what our adversary did wrong. This can make the conflict worse.

After being involved in a dispute, we’ll often turn to our partners to vent and seek support.

In our study, we found that empathetic and caring partners were more likely to agree with their loved ones’ negative views of their adversary and blame the adversary for the conflict.

We also found that people whose relationship partners responded this way ended up being far more motivated to avoid their adversaries and tended to view them as bad and immoral, and were less interested in reconciliation. In fact, a full 56 percent of those who had received this type of empathy reported avoiding their adversaries, which can harm conflict resolution and often involves cutting off the relationship.

On the other hand, among the participants who didn’t receive this sort of support from their partners, only 19 percent reported avoiding their adversaries.

Receiving empathy from partners was also related to conflict escalation: After their partners took their side, 20 percent of participants wanted to see their adversary “hurt and miserable,” compared to only 6 percent of those who did not receive this sort of support. And 41 percent of those who received empathetic responses tried to live as if their adversary didn’t exist, compared to only 15 percent of those who didn’t receive unwavering support.

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