The four most common causes of conflict in relationships

by Dorian Minors

June 5, 2014

Analects  |  Newsletter


Conflict is an inevitable part of any relationship. There are many ways to manage it too. The four items that follow, however, seem often so innocuous you might think to ignore them. You’d be wrong.

Relationships are a source of many conflicts, both large and small. The small ones often seem easier to ignore. These can be the most pernicious. Four of the most common, in fact, are also common roads to ruin.

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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.

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, seem often so innocuous you might think to ignore them. You’d be wrong. —in your social life, your family life and in your romances.


This is not the constructive kind. It’s always nice to know when you’ve got something in your teeth, or your collar is standing up. It’s great to have people in your social network that can point out more meaningful flaws, like smelly breath or how you become entirely too touchy-feely after a couple drinks.

Criticism here, though, is more about the demeaning kind. The kind that John Gottman outlines as a one of the four horsemen of relationship breakdown. It’s the kind that makes you feel small and bruised. Perhaps it’s done off-hand, with words, or even with an expression. Or perhaps more explicit, in direct conversation. But if the criticism leads to feelings of hurt or humiliation without something soft on the other side, then these seemingly trivial events can become something quite damaging indeed.

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 a couple of 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 not likely to be resolved unless the injustice is acknowledged. That’s why it’s so important to figure out just exactly what kind of relationships we have and what the expectations are.


Here too, we’re in the realm of expectations. Perhaps you got a promotion at work or excellent results in an exam. You can’t wait to share the news with someone close to you, and they respond with “oh, I’m glad we won’t hear any more about that” or “I never understood why you did that in the first place”. Your good news means nothing to them, and they’re not shy about sharing it. The kinds of conflicts that result come from feeling misunderstood, and rejected. Given that the capitalisation of our friends on our successes is one of the most crucial aspects of successful friendships, and that sensitivity to rejection is at the root of a common mood disorder, it might come as no surprise to learn that these kinds of conflicts often simply fester, to come out later in more serious form.

A more complex dynamic follows on from an illegitimate demand. One person has the expectation that the other should do something unreasonable, and the other rebuffs them. Both are upset, and neither understands why. Not uncommon, and it illustrates quite vividly the reason why acknowledgement and understanding are far better solutions to such conflicts than leaning in to them or ignoring they happened at all.

Cumulative annoyances.

Finally, we have the pet peeve. Another psychologist by the name of Michael Cunningham developed this idea, colourfully calling them ‘social allergens’.

These are things that don’t really bother you at first perhaps. Maybe it’s the noisy way they sip through a straw. Maybe it’s their nervous jokes. Whatever it is, though innocuous at first, 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 conflicts indeed, because they’re often precursors to other conflicts. You might ask them to stop slurping thus. They might take that as an illegitimate demand or a criticism. You might rebuff them. All of a sudden, things have spiralled quite out of anyone’s control. It’s the kind of thing that can end friendships, estrange family members and break-up couples.

And, of these causes of conflict, interestingly cumulative annoyances have been identified as one of the most problematic in long term relationships. Perhaps because it does seem so innocuous.


Criticism, illegitimate demands, rebuffs, and cumulative annoyances. Four, almost trivial forms of relationship conflict. So trivial we might tend to look past how important they can become. I guess it shouldn’t 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.

Ideologies you choose at btrmt.

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