When you're in a relationship, hanging out with other couples can be nice, but sometimes you and your partner spend the entire time exchanging looks that mean, I can't wait to get out of here and talk about these people. But is it bad if you and your partner kind of enjoy overanalyzing your friends' relationships?
"It can sound mean and gossipy, but I don't see it that way," says Jennifer Bosson, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of South Florida who has studied why people bond over mutual hatred.
Generally speaking, dwelling on negativity and spending a lot of time criticizing other people is probably not good for you, Dr. Bosson says. But, in most cases, when you and your partner are talking about other couples, you're just discussing how they differ from you — which is very natural, she says. As counterintuitive as it sounds, these sorts of conversations could bring you closer to your partner.
According to Bosson, when you're first getting to know someone, talking about a person who you mutually hate can bond you (surely there's a public figure you can both agree kind of sucks). This is because when someone shares that they don't like someone, they're confiding in you, which builds trust and intimacy. And this continues to happen throughout a partnership. "The positive effects of discovering shared dislikes could still apply, even when you're already in a relationship," Bosson says.
But it's not all about casting judgment. When you're in a romantic relationship, seeing other couples interact in less-than-positive ways can help you reflect on your own partnership. Noticing things that you don't like about other people's relationships can help you identify and observe aspects of yours that you might not have noticed before, Dr. Bosson says. For example, you might acknowledge that you'd never put down your partner in the same way your friend puts down theirs. "It can be healthy to highlight and clarify ways in which your relationship is good and functioning," she says.
That being said, if all you ever do is bash other couples, you might want to do some introspection, Dr. Bosson says. If you and your partner tend to get gossipy, or feel like you have to put down other people in order to be content about your own relationship, then that might be a sign that you're insecure about your patterns as a couple, she says. Also, it's important to keep in mind that every relationship is different, and there are intricacies you couldn't possibly understand just from observing couples in the wild. Not to mention, it's usually not your place to pass judgment on someone else's partnership. In other words, going from constructive criticism to mean-spirited can be a slippery slope.
So how do you know if you're discussing other couples in a productive way? "There's a category of conversations we have where we're not being mean — we're just talking about things we don't like in other people," Dr. Bosson says. For example, Dr. Bosson suggests you say something along the lines of, "Hey, did you notice they were arguing a lot during dinner?" and then say something like, "We don't argue like that, but it bothered me that they did." In some cases, it might feel easier to express your boundaries and preferences by talking about another couple's behavior, because it gives you a less personal peg and takes the pressure off. (Of course, if there are actual pressing issues in your relationship, then you'll usually want to tackle those head on.)
Moral of the story? If you have nothing nice to say, you can absolutely still say something. You and your partner aren't terrible people for talking about your friends' relationships, and you might even grow as a couple if you can harness all of those opinions into productive relationship talks. Or, sometimes, you can just bond over feeling (slightly) superior — you're only human.