Are You Responsible for Your Partner’s Bad Behavior?

You and your partner are in the middle of a lovely meal with a couple you’re friendly with when your partner starts to criticize the other couple’s oldest child for being ill-behaved. Horrified, you’re shocked at your own partner’s bad behavior. As you try to smooth things over, you realize that the damage has already been done and it’s going to be hard to turn back. After you and your partner make your hasty exit, your anger grows, and by the time you get home, you realize it may be unable to redeem yourselves in the eyes of your friends. At the same time, though, it was your partner who acted badly, not you. Should you feel responsible for this unfortunately incident?

When Kellyanne Conway appeared on a CNN Sunday morning show with host Dana Bash, a similar situation unfolded as Dana asked about Kellyanne’s husband, George Conway, and his critical tweets directed at Trump and his policies. Kellyanne became outraged that this topic would come up at all, and attempted to point out that her husband’s behavior had nothing to do with her. Do you agree? If your partner openly criticized your boss, how would you feel? New research by University of Colorado Boulder’s Mark Whisman and colleagues (2018) suggests that when you and your partner disagree, the effects on your mental health can go on for years.  The discord that erupts when your partner embarrasses you or otherwise results in guilt by association is certainly one of the prime candidates for having negative long-lasting effects.

The Whisman et al. study tested the marital discord model, “which proposes that poor marital adjustment leads to depression by decreasing available support from one’s partner and increasing stress and conflict” (p. 1). The UC Boulder research team knew from previous studies that marital discord could result, over time, in people experiencing increases in their levels of depression. In the current investigation, they expanded their focus to include symptoms of anxiety. This well-conducted longitudinal study involved a sample of nearly 1500 Irish adults chosen to be representative of the population of married individuals 50 years of age and older. The fact that both partners were included allowed the researchers to test an actor-partner interdependence model (APIM) that examined the extent to which husband and wife’s level of marital discord and current symptoms of anxiety and depression predicted anxiety and depression symptoms in each partner two years later.

To measure the quality of the social interactions among their Irish participants, the research team administered a 6-item measure, with 3 that tested positive interactions (“how much does he/she understand the way you feel about things?”), and 3 to tap negative interactions (“how much does he/she criticize you?”).  Having a partner who doesn’t understand you would lead, almost certainly, to the kind of embarrassment or annoyance you feel when your partner does something to reflect badly on you. By the same token, you may very well become critical when this happens, feeling justifiably irritated that your partner has exposed you, by association, to negative treatment by others.

The test of the APIM showed that, as the authors predicted, marital discord was associated with increases, over the 2 years of the study, in symptoms of depression and, for husbands, symptoms of anxiety.  As the authors concluded, “the longitudinal association between marital discord and depression is incremental to potential rival explanations of quality of other social relationships and other psychiatric symptoms” (p. 11). In other words, taking the quality of all other social relationships into account, the authors were able to show that there are harmful effects of partner disagreements on an individual’s functioning.

Returning to the question of how to deal with your own partner’s bad behavior, should that occur, the Whisman et al. study suggests that it’s important not to let these situations fester. The CNN interview revealed that, as Conley and Bash discussed, you’re never going to agree 100% with your partner. There is certainly truth to the notion that differences of opinion can enliven a relationship as couples learn from and grow from each partner’s point of view.  From what we know about the interaction between identity and intimacy in couples suggests that it’s important to retain your own sense of self independently from your partner as long as you share a fundamental world view. When your partner does something you feel is unethical, rude, or disloyal, that assumption of agreements in world view can become cracked if not shattered.

How you then react to that violation of what you think is fundamental to your relationship then becomes the next issue. In that dinner with your friends, the obvious next step would be for you to request, as firmly but respectfully as possible, that your partner apologize. It’s possible that the child in question is actually rude and poorly behaved, but nothing was gained by pointing this out to the parents.  It’s then quite likely that your partner will agree, but if not, you’ve got a decision to make about whether you should apologize yourself.  You might be perfectly fine with taking the fall for your partner, but you might also feel deeply resentful of the fact that your partner refuses to accede to your request.

Based on the study of Irish couples, if you let this fester, your own mental health can suffer, particularly if this type of incident happens repeatedly.  The study’s authors point out that their findings illustrate the importance of couples seeking counseling when heated and angry disagreements are part and parcel of your everyday life with your partner.

To sum up, having a fulfilling long-term relationships appears to be good for your mental health. Your partner’s behavior, or misbehavior, can contribute importantly to that sense of well-being.

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