Recent science reveals that the relationship problems of the couples you’re closest to may be contagious. Learn how to protect your union.
The surge of adrenaline was making my heart race and my face hot. This was one intense argument, full of shouting and eviscerating insults. Everyone in the restaurant was staring. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. . .so that my boyfriend and I could get the check and escape from our feuding friends and this double-date nightmare. I thought we were free once we made it to the car, but little did I know that their toxic fumes would follow us home. Soon, we were attacking each other too.
New research may explain this phenomenon: We all have mirror neurons, or brain cells that may help us process the emotions of other people and could subconsciously influence our own behavior toward others, according to a study published in Brain Imaging and Behavior. They may allow us to empathize with and better understand the people around us—which is great when your best friend lands her dream job (“Yay! Let’s have a spa day!”), but not so fun when she’s seething with rage at her boyfriend (“Um, gotta go!”).
These cells can be responsive to stress and negative energy, so even just witnessing someone else’s warring ways could put you at the pre-show of your very own romantic battle. Assuming you don’t want your relationship to go down because of a fight that has nothing to do with you, here are suggestions on how to block other couples’ contentious vibes.
Why Bad Juju Spreads
You’re a freethinking adult, so why are you letting other people’s problems seep into your life? One reason, science explains, is not that you love to soak up drama (except maybe when watching reality TV); it’s because you may not even be aware it’s happening. Social mirroring, or imitating others, is considered an automatic, subconscious process (triggered by those mirror neurons) that allows us to better relate to people’s motives, desires, and thoughts, according to a review of research authored by Marco Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “We’re hardwired with the impulse to imitate whatever emotion we see in those we’re with,” says marriage and family therapist Leslie Parrott, Ph.D., coauthor of The Good Fight. You don’t even need to be that close to someone—either physically or emotionally—to take on their feelings (see “Thank You for Not Sharing,” at right, for more). Just hearing of a friend-of-a-friend’s relationship woes can put you in a funk.
Fail to realize where those ill feelings are coming from and you can project the anger or resentment onto your guy—which can spark a fight that you can’t brush off with a “Just kidding! I’m feeling better now.” And, “because your partner doesn’t know the backstory, he may think these emotions are coming from something you don’t like about him, and he could react in turn,” says psychotherapist Avril Carruthers, author ofFreedom from Toxic Relationships.
Halt That Negativity
You can’t just switch off your mirror neurons—but you can stop other people’s relationship tension from riling you up. In fact, just being more attentive to what’s going on around you helps. “Realize that when someone has an emotion, you’re probably going to pick up on it,” says Parrott. And while your first instinct may be to put yourself in their shoes, it’s better to think of yourself as a caring—but uninvolved—bystander. So if your sister turns girls’ night into an investigation of whether or not her guy is cheating on her, consciously resist the urge to let her distrust spur your own suspicions. “It’s essential to recognize whose problem it is and not take it on,” says Carruthers. “Listen objectively, but don’t become deeply involved. Talk to her about what she’ll do, and move on.” Establish some distance and you’ll be less likely to catch her paranoia. And if the convo is still bugging you later on? Think of how your situation is different from hers. Remember how your man said you were the sexiest thing he’d ever seen? Right, you two are fine.
If you happen to be stuck with a pissed-off person or pair—say, you’re a backseat observer to a front-seat argument—do your best to change the subject to a neutral topic (like the lovely scenery), or plug in and distract yourself with music. Don’t try to take a side or defuse the tension with a joke (odds are, it won’t work anyway). Once you’ve survived the awkwardness, alert your guy to the fact that there could be a ripple effect. Tell him, “I’m upset about what’s going on between Gwen and Ryan, and I don’t want it to affect us,” suggests Carruthers.
However, in the case that this wasn’t just one bad car ride (i.e., it’s pretty much World War III every time you’re with this pair), it may be best to distance yourselves from the troubled twosome until things settle down—or they break up. “There’s really nothing healthy or productive that can come from this type of dynamic,” says psychologist Sherrie Campbell, Ph.D., author of Loving Yourself: The Mastery of Being Your Own Person. Become less available to meet up or talk on the phone, and if your friend asks why you’ve gone missing, be direct. Campbell suggests saying, “I love spending time with you, but your relationship drama is starting to affect me.”
Let in the Good Stuff
Though mirror neurons are considered equally sensitive in their response to negative and happy sentiments, it’s a healthier idea to hang out with other couples whose, say, mutual affection and respect you admire—and to make it a regular outing. In the hours and days following these double dates, you’ll most likely find that you and your guy can’t seem to keep your hands off each other or are cruising through a no-fighting streak. This is when subconscious mirroring can be pretty awesome—and you’ll be glad that other people’s romantic energy can follow you home.