How Negativity Can Kill a Relationship

Successful marriages are defined not by improvement, but by avoiding decline.

A black-and-white photo of a couple looking unhappy
Orlando / Three Lions / Getty

There’s an elegant symmetry to traditional wedding vows: for better or for worse. But love is not symmetrical, and most of us don’t realize how lopsided it can be. The worse matters far more than the better in marriage or any other relationship. That’s how the brain works.

Our thoughts and feelings are skewed by what researchers call the negativity effect, which is our tendency to respond more strongly to negative events and emotions than to positive ones. When we hear a mix of compliments and criticism, we obsess over the criticism instead of enjoying the praise. This imbalance, also known as the negativity bias, evolved in the brain because it kept our ancestors alert to deadly threats, but too often it warps our perspective and behavior. A slight conflict can have ruinous consequences when the power of bad overwhelms your judgment, provoking you to actions that further alienate your partner. You’d fare better by using your rational brain to override your irrational impulses, but to do that you need first to understand just how powerful bad can be.

In relationships, the negativity effect magnifies your partner’s faults, real or imagined, starting with their ingratitude, because you’re also biased by an internal overconfidence that magnifies your own strengths. So you wonder how your partner can be so selfish and so blind to your virtues—to all that you’ve done for them. You contemplate one of life’s most exasperating mysteries: Why don’t they appreciate me?

We have some answers, thanks to psychologists who have been tracking couples’ happiness. They’ve found, based on the couples’ ratings of their own satisfaction, that marriages usually don’t get better. The ratings typically go downhill over time. The successful marriages are defined not by improvement, but by avoiding decline. That doesn’t mean marriage is a misery. The thrill of infatuation fades, so the euphoria that initially bonded a couple cannot sustain them over the decades, but most couples find other sources of contentment and remain satisfied overall (just not as satisfied as at the beginning). Sometimes, though, the decline in satisfaction is so steep that it dooms a marriage. By monitoring couples’ interactions and tracking them over time, researchers have developed a surprising theory for the breakdown of relationships.

Imagine you are dating someone who does something that annoys you. (This may not require a great deal of imagination.) Perhaps your partner is a spendthrift, or flirts with your friends, or zones out in the middle of your stories. How do you respond?

  1. Let it slide and hope things improve.
  2. Explain what bothers you and work out a compromise.
  3. Sulk. Say nothing, but emotionally withdraw from your partner.
  4. Head for the exit. Threaten to break up, or start looking for another partner.

Those answers form a matrix used in a classic study of how dating couples deal with problems. Psychologists at the University of Kentucky identified two general strategies, constructive or destructive, each of which could be either passive or active. The constructive strategies sounded sensible and admirable, but they didn’t matter much. Remaining passively loyal had no discernible impact on the course of the relationship; actively trying to work out a solution improved things only a little.

A jacket cover of The Power of Bad.
This article is adapted from John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister’s new book, The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It.

What mattered was the bad stuff, as the psychologists concluded: “It is not so much the good, constructive things that partners do or do not do for one another that determines whether a relationship ‘works’ as it is the destructive things that they do or do not do in reaction to the problems.” When you quietly hang in there for your partner, your loyalty often isn’t even noticed. But when you silently withdraw from your partner or issue angry threats, you can start a disastrous spiral of retaliation.

“The reason long‑term relationships are so difficult,” says Caryl Rusbult, who led the couples study, “is that sooner or later one person is liable to be negative for so long that the other one starts to respond negatively too. When that happens, it’s hard to save the relationship.” Negativity is a tough disease to shake—and it’s highly contagious. Other researchers have found that when partners are separately asked to ponder aspects of their relationship, they spend much more time contemplating the bad than the good. To get through the bad stuff, you need to stop the negative spiral before it begins.

But suppose you’ve managed to survive your courtship without any problems. (This may take more imagination.) You’ve just graduated from dating to blissful matrimony. Your soul soars, your heart sings, and your brain is awash in oxytocin, dopamine, and other neurochemicals associated with love. You are probably in no mood to participate in a scientific study, but some other newlyweds were persuaded to do so for a long‑term project called PAIR. (The full, unromantic name is Processes of Adaptation in Intimate Relationships.) These couples, in central Pennsylvania, were interviewed during their first two years of marriage by psychologists who cataloged both the positive and negative aspects of the relationships.

Some of the people were already ambivalent or hostile toward their partners—and tended to get divorced quickly—but most couples showed lots of mutual affection and went on to celebrate several anniversaries. Over the long haul, though, those tender early feelings were not a reliable harbinger. More than a decade later, a disproportionate number of the couples who had been “almost giddily affectionate” were no longer together. As a group, those who divorced had been a third more affectionate during the early years than the ones who went on to have long, happy marriages. Over the short term, their passion had enabled them to surmount their misgivings and their fights, but those positive feelings couldn’t keep the marriage going forever. It was how they dealt with the negative stuff—their doubts, their frustrations, their problems—that predicted whether the marriage would survive. Negativity hits young people especially hard, which is one reason that people who marry earlier in life are more likely to divorce than ones who delay marriage. (Another reason is that younger people tend to have less money, which means more stress.)

Some couples, of course, are better off splitting up, but far too many of them sabotage a relationship that could have worked. Researchers who track couples have repeatedly been puzzled to see relationships destroyed even when there are no obvious causes. To test a theory, the psychologists Sandra Murray and John Holmes brought couples into a lab and gave them questionnaires to be filled out at tables arranged so that the partners sat with their backs to each other. They’d both be answering the same questions, the experimenter explained, and it was important that they not communicate in any way as they filled out the forms.

In fact, though, the questionnaires were different. One form asked people what they didn’t like about their partners. They could list as many traits as they wanted, but were told it was fine to name just one. These people, who’d been dating on average for a year and a half, had a few complaints but were mostly pretty satisfied. They typically wrote down one or two things about their partners that were less than ideal, and then they put down their pens. The other partners were given a much different task: listing all the things in their home. Instructed to name at least 25 items, they’d start writing—cataloging pieces of furniture, kitchenware, gadgets, books, artwork, whatever—and were often still working away at it five minutes later.

Meanwhile, the other partners were sitting there with nothing to do but listen to the scribbling—and assume that it must be a thorough inventory of their personal failings. They’d been hard‑pressed to name just one or two complaints, but their partners apparently had a much different view of the relationship. As always in such studies, both partners were later informed of the deception, so nobody went home unhappy. But before revealing the truth, the experimenter asked more questions about the relationship, and it turned out that the deception had a big impact on some of the people: the ones already prone to insecurity. The people with high self‑esteem (as measured in a test before the experiment) felt a little threatened, but shrugged it off because they were secure enough to know that their partners valued them. But the people with low self‑esteem reacted strongly to the presumed cascade of criticisms.

Once they heard all that scribbling behind their backs, they feared their partners might reject them, and that fear took over. To protect themselves, they changed their own attitudes. They lowered their regard and affection for their partners. They felt less close, less trustful, and less optimistic about the relationship. The insecure people were reacting needlessly, because in reality they were valued by their partners just as much as the secure people were. But they projected their own self‑doubts into their partners’ minds. They assumed their partners would judge them as harshly as they judged themselves.

This sort of needless self‑protection is especially harmful to a relationship, as Murray and Holmes found in another study by tracking a group of newlywed couples over three years. All too often, couples would seem to be in good shape—they had relatively few conflicts—but then one partner’s insecurities would kick in. They’d mentally push their partners away or devalue their relationships even though there was no real danger. They’d become especially resentful of making routine sacrifices, such as staying home in the evening instead of going out with friends. Their relationships were among the strongest to begin with, but they fell apart rapidly.

By watching sore spouses bicker, researchers have noticed a pattern of gender differences. Insecure men tend to focus on fears of their partner’s sexual infidelity. Inflamed with jealousy even when there’s no cause for it, they become highly possessive and controlling, which puts stress on the relationship and eventually drives the woman away. Insecure women worry less about sexual infidelity than about other kinds of rejection, and they tend to react with hostility rather than jealousy. These reactions were cataloged in a study of New York City couples who were videotaped in a lab at Columbia University as they discussed their problems.

Each time one of the partners did something negative— complaining, speaking in a hostile tone, rolling their eyes, denying responsibility, insulting the other—the action was classified and counted. The researchers, led by Geraldine Downey, found that insecure people were the ones most likely to act negatively. Their own fear of rejection no doubt intensified the distress they felt, because for them an argument wasn’t just about a specific issue but a sign of deep problems and an ominous signal that the relationship was in jeopardy. Their panicky response was to push away their partner—with unfortunate success, as the researchers found by following couples over several years. People sensitive to rejection were especially likely to end up alone. Their fear of rejection became a self‑fulfilling prophecy.

Negativity seems to be less of a problem in same‑sex couples. When researchers tracked a group of same‑sex couples for more than a decade, they found that both male and female couples tended to be more upbeat than heterosexual couples when dealing with conflict. They were more positive both in the way that they introduced a disagreement and in the way that they responded to criticism, and they remained more positive afterward. In heterosexual couples, the most common conflict pattern is called “female‑demand, male‑withdrawal,” a destructive cycle in which the woman initiates a complaint or criticism and the man responds by withdrawing. That pattern is less likely in same‑sex couples. If it’s two men, they’re less likely to initiate a complaint; if it’s two women, they’re less likely to withdraw after being criticized.

Most people don’t recognize the negativity effect in their relationships. When Roy Baumeister, one of the authors of this piece, asks his students why they think they would be a good partner, they list positive things: being friendly, understanding, good in bed, loyal, smart, funny. These things do make a difference, but what’s crucial is avoiding the negative. Being able to hold your tongue rather than say something nasty or spiteful will do much more for your relationship than a good word or deed.