Have you ever cooked a nice meal for your partner, only to bristle like a tetchy cat when they don’t offer to wash the dishes? If your first thought is, “BUT THEY OWE ME!”—you might end up feeling less connected with your partner.
New research from Columbia University found that this kind of tit-for-tat monitoring, of who does what in a relationship, could lead to lower levels of intimacy following everyday tiffs.
The study, published online in February in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, offers a new way to examine how perceptions of everyday conflict affect intimacy between partners.
The study followed 82 heterosexual couples over the course of a month using daily diaries. Each participant and their partner completed an initial questionnaire to assess their levels of “exchange orientation,” or their tendency to keep score in a relationship. To track daily intimacy, participants used a one-to-seven scale to measure three metrics: physical intimacy, emotional closeness and connection. The study also tracked the partners’ moods in order to make sure their findings were not colored by transitory grouchiness.
For participants with lower levels of scorekeeping behavior, there was no noticeable difference in levels of intimacy following spats. But for those more likely to keep score, there was a measurable decrease in perceived intimacy after conflict.
“For these people who are more likely to be doing these mental checks of who is winning or losing—are acting in ways to maintain balance—when a conflict with their partner does occur, their feelings of intimacy with their partner also takes a hit,” explains lead study author Shoshana Jarvis, who is now a Ph.D. student in social psychology at U.C. Berkeley.
The implication is that people high in monitoring traits extrapolate everyday conflict to be a reflection of the whole relationship, explains Dr. Margaret Clark, a sociologist at Yale. The scorekeepers “react to conflict by becoming more self-protective and withdrawing intimacy,” says Clark, who was not involved in the study. But people low in monitoring “don’t make as big a deal out of the conflict. They’re not as stressed by it,” she says.
Jarvis emphasizes that the findings are preliminary; researchers will need to observe couples acting out conflict scenarios in a lab before they can draw firm conclusions, she said.
“No relationship is perfect, and there will be conflicts,” she says. “To the extent that someone can go into a conflict and have the tools to be able to navigate it with their partner well, it can make their relationships stronger and more resilient in future conflicts.”