Research suggests we all hate our partners a little, even if we don't know it.

Have you ever had a moment when you looked at your partner and felt strong dislike, bordering on (or just firmly planted in) hate? You are not alone: It turns out that almost all of us have times when we strongly dislike the people we love the most—although some of us may not even realize it.

In a series of studies, Vivian Zayas and Yuichi Shoda found that people don’t just love or hate significant others; they love and hate them.

How did they do this? They asked people to think of someone that they feel very positively toward—a significant other they like very much, and feel very good about. They then had them report on their positive and negative feelings towards that significant other and, in line with the prompt, people reported highly positive feelings and very low negative feelings toward the person they had chosen.


Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D.Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, San Francisco. Her research is driven by two main questions: (1) How do prosocial thoughts, feelings and actions help people thrive in their romantic relationships, and (2) how do basic biological factors, such as lack of sleep, prevent people from being prosocial? She received her Ph.D. and M.A. in Social/Personality Psychology from UC Berkeley and her B.A. in Psychology from UCLA.

Editor: Nadeem Noor


But then they had them assess their implicit feelings (those feelings that they may not be consciously aware of) towards the significant other that they had chosen. How? They had people do a standard computer task that measures how quickly people respond to certain directions. In the critical conditions in this task, people saw the name of their significant other pop up on the computer screen, and then it was quickly followed by a target word that was either positive (e.g., lucky, kitten) or negative (e.g., garbage, cancer). Their job was to categorize the target words (lucky, cancer) as positive or negative as quickly as possible by pushing the correct button.

What does this have to do with feelings of love and hate towards our significant others? The way our brains work, if we are thinking about something pleasant when a positive word pops up, we are going to be quicker to categorize it as positive, and when a negative word pops up, we are going to be slower to categorize it as negative. Likewise, if we are thinking about something unpleasant, we will be slower to categorize positive words and quicker to categorize negative words. So if people see the name of someone they feel very positively towards right before a target word, this should make them quicker at categorizing positive words and slower at categorizing negative words.

This task allows researchers to actually quantify people’s feelings towards their significant others by calculating how quickly they respond to positive words and negative words after seeing their significant other’s name. To do this, they need to know how quickly people categorize positive and negative words in general—when they aren’t thinking about their significant other. They accomplish this by having participants also categorize the target words (e.g., lucky, cancer) as positive or negative after first showing them a nonsensical strings of letters like BBBBBB (instead of seeing their significant other’s name). They can then compare their responses after seeing their partner’s name to their responses after seeing BBBBBB. The more positively they feel towards their partner, the quicker they should respond to positive words, and the slower they should respond to negative words (when comparing their responses after seeing their partner’s name to their responses after seeing the string of letters).

Zayas & Shoda (2015)

Are you still with me? Great, because here is where it gets interesting: If you look at the bars on the right half of the above graph you can see that, as expected, people were quicker to categorize positive words after seeing their significant other’s name. But people were also quicker to categorize negative words. Not just not slower, actually quicker! The effect for positive words was larger, but there was a small effect showing that thinking about their significant others actually boosted people’s responses when categorizing negative words like garbage and cancer. These were significant others toward whom people reported feeling very positively and not very negatively, yet these findings show that at an implicit level, people hold both positive and negative feelings toward these people.

(Note: The bars on the left side of the graph show the typical response using positive and negative objects, such as sunsets and spiders, where positive objects only affect positive target words and negative objects only affect negative target words.)

So people feel both positively and negatively toward those they love. Perhaps in the end this isn’t so surprising to anyone who has a significant other. Those closest to us, such as our romantic partners, invoke strong feelings on both ends of the spectrum—some days, thoughts of our romantic partners may leave us awash with love and admiration; other days, our primary feelings toward our partners may fall more along the lines of dislike or even repulsion.

What these findings suggest to me is that this is a normal part of close relationships, and that feeling negatively towards your partner does not mean that you are doing something wrong or that you are in the wrong relationship. These findings suggest that hating your partner sometimes does not mean that you don’t also love them a lot—which is actually a bit of a revelation (and a relief).

Much of our relationship rhetoric focuses on positive and negative as two ends of a spectrum—feeling more positively toward your partner means you feel less negatively toward them, and vice versa. While that may be true in one particular moment, it isn’t representative of the complex nature of your relationship overall (or even in one day). Our feelings toward our partners can range wildly from moment to moment—and it seems that that may just be part of the wild ride of sharing your life with another complex human being. So despite the overwhelmingly positive pictures posted on social media of all your friends’ happy relationships, know that there are days when they too would happily plop their partner into the same category as garbage.

When is it too much hate? Relationships don’t need to be all positive all the time to be happy and healthy, but having too much negativity can be harmful. Instead, the key seems to be having a high enough ratio of positive to negative experiences.

We also love those we hate. Zayas and Shoda had another condition in their studies: They also looked at people’s implicit feelings toward significant others that they reported disliking a lot. These were people who played an important role in their life, but toward whom they had strong negative feelings and reported not liking at all, such as exes or estranged parents. When shown these significant others’ names, people were quicker to categorize negative words, as expected. But they were also quicker to categorize positive words, suggesting that feelings toward loathed significant others aren’t so set in stone either. Instead, it seems we hold some positive views of these significant others, even as we profess our dislike of them (even if we may not be able to admit it at a conscious level).

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