The four most common causes of conflict in relationships cover image

The four most common causes of conflict in relationships

Dorian Minors • June 5, 2014

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and make it intelligible. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. This article was fun enough to keep.

Donald Petersen came up with four of the 'most common' causes of conflict in 1983 and they still form part of any dialogue about close relationships today. These particular items are actually part of a far greater theory of close relationship conflict, which has been modified in various ways over the years, but these four have remained stoic against the ravages of time.

Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship. There are many ways to manage it too. Like addressing relationship needs, defining relationship rules, determining relationship types, exploring conflict resolution styles and bad communication styles.

The four items that follow, however, are not really something to be managed but avoided, both in your social life, your family life and in your romances.


I'm not talking about the constructive kind here. It's always nice to know when you've got crap in your teeth, or your clothes are all wrinkled. It's even great to have people in your social network that can point out more meaningful flaws, like smelly breath or how you're way too touchy-feely when you've been drinking. This is more about the demeaning kind. The kind that John Gottman outlines as a massive predictor of break-ups (this guy's insight into couples gets him a bunch of free publicity on this site). It's the kind that makes you feel small and bruised. Maybe it's done off-hand, with words, or even with an expression. We even need to be careful when being constructive. If it's construed in a negative way, chances are it's just adding wood to a fire.

Illegitimate demands.

This brings our expectations about relationships into the equation. We have expectations of what friends and family do for each other and these don't always align with everyone else's in our social groups. When our expectations are violated, we feel abused. It might be that your roommate told their friend they could stay for two months and brings it up like they don't need to ask you. Or maybe your family suddenly starts asking you to pay back all the living expenses it cost to raise you. If the demand doesn't seem fair to you, it's probably going to spark a problem. That's why it's so important to figure out just exactly what kind of relationships we have and what the expectations are.


Again, we're talking about expectations here. Maybe you got a new car, can't wait to tell your best mate or partner and they respond with a 'oh, alright' or a 'aw, I don't really like hatchbacks'. Sticks a pin right in that balloon. This sort of thing often leads off an illegitimate demand (see above), which causes hilarious conflicts where both people feel pissed off because the other person violated their expectations. Lets go back to the roommate example. Your roommate brings up that their friend is crashing on the couch a while like it's no big deal. You start to get annoyed at them for not asking. Then they feel rebuffed, thinking you'd be fine and now you're all upset with them. Not ideal huh? Make sure you're reading the situation when you're presented with news, so you don't accidentally deflate someone you care about.

Cumulative annoyances.

Finally, we have the pet peeve (although a specific kind). Yep, it's a scientific thing, too. In fact another psychologist by the name of Michael Cunningham really developed this idea, with the flowery term 'social allergens'. Basically, these are things that don't really bother you at first perhaps. Maybe it's the way your mate always burps after downing a cola. Or maybe it's that 'touchy-feely when drunk' thing from earlier. Over time, the more you're exposed to it, the more it starts to bother you. In psychological terms the more 'sensitive' to it you become. Finally, it becomes all too much and a conflict begins. These can be interesting, because they can really trigger further conflicts based on the stuff above, the 'touchy-feely' thing, may cause you to criticise them about how often they do it. You might even tell them to stop. They might take that as an illegitimate demand. All of a sudden, you have this all-out-brawl. It's the kind of thing that can end friendships, estrange family members and break-up couples.


Four things to avoid. Criticism, illegitimate demands, rebuffs, and cumulative annoyances. Not too hard, right? And, of these, interestingly cumulative annoyances have been identified as one of the most problematic in long term relationships. I guess it should surprise us. You ever heard that old quote:

the smallest things are the most powerful, you'd know if you ever spent the night with a mosquito.

Turning scholarship into wisdom we can use at The Armchair Collective.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.