It is a well-known fact that similarity is very important for the development of crushes and romantic relationships. This similarity is an important basis for determining psychological distance, where we judge the distance between us based on how similar we are to the other person. Similarity is also important for the development of romantic relationships, as it leads to a preference for things that are similar to one’s own, and the fact that the person chooses the same thing as you validates and praises your choice.
In the early stages of a relationship, lovers explore each other, and the eyes that look at each other at this time are so-called beanstalk eyes, so we focus on finding similarities rather than looking at each other objectively because we must be one and seem to be one.
At the peak of passion, there seems to be a lot of similarity, and the two people are filled with a sense of unity. However, as the passion begins to wane, we begin to look at each other with a more objective eye. You feel that ‘he/she has changed’. Therefore, sometimes I feel rejected by the other person’s words or attitude, and even though it is just a word, I may feel cold or offended. Or I may feel lonely because I do not feel cared for or respected as a lover, and my head and heart become complicated.
The conflict starts small
M: Your girlfriend invites you to a gathering of her friends. You don’t want to go, but you’re too smart to make an excuse by suddenly making another appointment…. You have no choice but to go. The day arrives. Luckily, it’s not as uncomfortable as you thought it would be. I do my best to entertain my friends, and they all seem to think I’m a decent person. But on the way back, my girlfriend gives me a sour look. I don’t understand why, and I’m getting a little annoyed. I’ve gone to a meeting I don’t want to go to, I’ve tried my best, and I’m still oily. I think about making it up to her, but I can’t be bothered. I think I’ll just meet a friend on the way home and have a beer.
W: I thought about it and decided to take the plunge and introduce my friends to my boyfriend. I thought it would be nice to dress up a bit, but I’m a terrible dresser. Luckily, I don’t look like a dork and I fit in well with my friends. But the more I look at him, the more he seems to be enjoying himself, so I get a little annoyed. I try to put up with it because it’s a virtual effort, but she seems to listen to her friends more than she listens to me. I’m confused about who I’m dating.
Within psychology, there are many different ways of looking at conflict in relationships. Some theorize that it depends on how the couple perceives the situation or conflict, while others explain it in terms of personal factors such as attachment and rejection. Others view conflict as the result of unresolved issues from past relationships with parents that are repeated in intimate relationships.
The causes of intimate partner conflict vary widely. For example, Buss (1989) surveyed people about what makes them angry with their partner in an intimate relationship and found 147 very different responses, ranging from the very trivial and personal (e.g., I can’t stand it when he burps in front of me) to reasons that many people would understand (he ignores me in front of others). The researcher categorized these reasons into 15 broad categories, and while it is not possible to list them all, both men and women said that lack of loyalty, disrespect, and arrogance were important factors in breaking their hearts.
How does the human brain perceive conflict and rejection in relationships?
Fisher et al. (2010) used fMRI to compare the brain activity of people in love and people who were rejected and broke up but still loved their partner when they viewed pictures of their partner (or former partner). The results showed that the brains of people in love showed significant activation of the reward-sensitive dopamine reward system, similar to the brains of people with addictions or those taking on risky challenges.
However, when rejected lovers looked at pictures of their exes, they still showed similar activation of the dopamine reward system as those in love. This may explain why breakups are so hard. Overcoming rejection in a relationship can be just as hard as overcoming an addiction. People who were dumped also showed activation in brain regions that are sensitive to physical pain, such as pain in the skin or muscles. In other words, people who were dumped actually had their “hearts broken.
Receiving rejection from a partner, whether it’s a sudden and unexplained cancelation or a dry response, or an outright breakup sign, can cause anxiety, including feelings of loneliness, fear, and abandonment. In contrast, when people perceive that they are being accepted and connected to their partner, they respond more calmly to situations that are expected to cause anxiety or pain, and neural activity that predicts pain is reduced (Coan et al., 2006). We crave relationships more than we realize.
It’s not very romantic to talk about hormones, neurotransmitters, and brain regions to explain love and breakups. But ironically, the same chemicals that contribute to love are the same ones that cause us to feel anxious and angry when we have a conflict with our partner, or when they reject us. Like love, anger requires a lot of energy. You need energy to fight and to try to improve your relationship.
If you focus on the pain of the conflict rather than the initial good feelings, it’s hard to solve the problem. If the other person thinks differently than you do, you may feel resentful and want to interrupt them in the middle of what they’re saying and tell them that it wasn’t that way, but even if they were misunderstanding you, you’re skipping the process of saying, “Oh, I see,” and understanding and accepting their point of view.
A few years ago, a TV program had the contestants hold hands and face each other, and when the other person told them how they felt at the time, they would unconditionally accept it without any counter-questions or rationalization, i.e., “I see, I did that and that’s why you felt that way. Although the show focused more on laughter, I think it’s something we can easily apply to improve our relationships.
Effective communication is also very important to resolve conflicts in a relationship, and a good way to communicate effectively is to express yourself immediately and honestly. For example, if you’re angry and you don’t express it, your partner has no way of knowing you’re angry. If they don’t know you’re angry, they’ll get even angrier. If you keep your anger bottled up, it can lead to a hostile relationship where you bring up the old stuff later when you’re upset about something else, and you end up breaking up over something that, in retrospect, wasn’t that serious.
However, if the reason you’re upset is minor and doesn’t seriously affect your relationship, it’s a good idea to go through the process of deciding whether or not to express your anger. If you do decide to express your anger, you’ll need to decide on an appropriate level of expression and do it correctly. It’s important to note that when you get angry, you should express your opinion honestly, focusing on the behavior in that particular situation (i.e., the specific event) itself, not on criticizing the person’s traits or character. If your anger or criticism focuses on the person’s character and traits, it can lead to further conflict.
Let’s go back to the situation with the man and woman above.
W: Have you ever considered my point of view? You listened to my friend’s opinion, not yours, in front of your friends! You’re the same person who never considers the other person’s point of view!
Him: You’re always demanding of me, I’ve done my best, how much more do I have to do!
W: I want you to respect me whenever and wherever you can, especially when there are other people around. I would appreciate it if you would stand up for me in front of others, even if your opinion is different from mine.
M: I didn’t realize you felt that way, and you know I respect you more than anyone else. I didn’t mean to, but I’ll be more careful in the future. But I want you to know that I was trying my best in an awkward situation.
Which is more honest? Honesty is hard to come by. It can be even harder when you’re in a relationship. But being honest is the right way to resolve conflict. Just don’t blame or ridicule.