Psychologists say they have produced the first rigorous analysis of why newly-wed heterosexual couples argue. Topping the list is that people feel their partner pays them inadequate attention or affection.
The other main sources of disagreement are based around sex, money, control, jealousy and housework. The psychologists have turned the results into a standardised list of questions they say could help couples and therapists get to the bottom of constant rows.
“Understanding the main reasons for disagreement in relationships, and what men and women perceive as disagreement, can help couples mitigate arguments by anticipating conflict,” says Guilherme Lopes, a psychologist at Oakland University, Michigan, who led the study.
His team first asked university students to nominate hundreds of topics they thought married couples might argue about. The suggestions ranged from the very serious, including abortion, to the stereotypical and trivial, such as which TV programmes to watch.
The team removed the suggestions they thought were irrelevant or redundant and then ran a list of the remaining 83 possibilities past 107 heterosexual couples from the local area who had married in the past year. For each topic, both partners were asked to grade how much they thought they rowed about it with their spouse.
The team then took the most popular answers and grouped them by theme into six principal reasons for conflict, rejecting those ideas that couples said rarely prompted disagreement. Perhaps not surprisingly, given they had been married less than a year, couples said they didn’t argue about dating other people. Neither did they disagree about what side of the bed to sleep on.
More common arguments focused on disputes such as who should pay for something, whose friends the couple sees more often, frequency of sex and who does more work. The psychologists took the most important 30 – grouped into those six principal themes – and now present them as a Reasons for Disagreement in Romantic Relationships Scale, which they say can help explain conflict between partners.
“I don’t think basic research can offer direct advice or tips to couples,” says Lopes. “But I believe that understanding sexual conflict can provide insights about a partner’s behaviours and a partner’s reactions to behaviours.”
The psychologists also asked each partner to rate how happily they were married and whether they were likely to have an affair. By cross-referencing these responses with the topics that men and women said they argued about the most, the study suggested that arguments about who was in control made wives unhappier than husbands.
The psychologists’ results are likely to cause some disagreements of their own. Gina Rippon, a cognitive neuroscientist at Aston University in Birmingham, UK, says such self-reported findings can be biased by local, cultural factors.
She also takes issue with the way the study authors lean heavily on evolutionary psychology to explain differences between men and women. For instance, they argue that less attentive husbands trigger an innate “mate ejection” reaction in a wife who senses a man less willing to invest resources in her and her offspring.
“I would challenge them to provide detailed empirical data,” says Rippon. “Otherwise this smacks of another evo psych ‘just-so’ story.”