Safe Targets: Why You Fight More With The People You Love The Most

by Sheena Sharma

“Get the kale for lunch.”

“Nah, I think I’m going to stick with the spinach.”

“Jesus, what is wrong with you? How come you don’t like kale? Why are you so afraid to try new things? Hell, now that I think about, WHY AM I EVEN FRIENDS WITH YOU?!”

-- A conversation between my best friend and I, brought to you by Real Life, Inc.

My best friend is also my worst friend. Out of all the people in the world, she is the person I pick fights with relentlessly -- more than I do with my landlord, my go-to Seamless delivery guy or the f*ck-up laundromat owner down the street (that says a lot).

At first, I thought she and I butt heads like wildebeests because she’s a classic ENFJ, and I’ve got that whole INFP thing going on, but it doesn’t boil down to just that. Apparently, there’s a science to frequent fighting with friends.

I love my family. I love my friends. I talk about completely different things with both of them, but I fight with both of them just the same.

But why do we fight with people we love the most?

It’s an interesting concept, the whole thing: We act in a more volatile manner with the people we’d be the most devastated to lose.

It should be the opposite -- that is, we should be fighting the least with the people who are willing to overlook even our most compromising flaws.

But science says that half the time we tap into our belligerent selves, we’re not even trying to be malicious; we unconsciously act aggressively because that’s just part of being human.

We deem our friends and family as “safe” targets.

There are two types of aggression: direct and indirect. We impose direct aggression onto siblings and significant others.

Deborah South Richardson, a psychology professor at Georgia Regents University, hypothesized that people are directly aggressive to their siblings because they feel they have sturdy, stable relationships with them, not poor ones.

Richardson said:

Direct aggression with siblings, either verbal or physical, might be a safety issue. As in, I can confront my sibling, and I'm safe when I do it. I don't need to be indirect. I don't need to be passive. My sibling will always be my sibling.

She went on to speculate that we engage in a similarly motivated push-and-pull with our romantic partners.

Friends, on the other hand, tend to bear the weight of our indirect aggression -- AKA that passive-aggressive tension sh*t that fills the air when you and your friend are pissed at each other but too pissed for words, leading you to avoid confrontation like the bubonic plague.

We have a lower tolerance for the behaviors of those we spend the most time with.

Well, we have a low tolerance for the negative qualities of the people we surround ourselves with, says Dr. Alex Lickerman.

And, because we’re likely to get more riled up about things we dislike as opposed to things that we do like, we end up making a point of getting into beef with them.

This one really got me thinking. I was on a three-hour-long flight the other day, and I spent two and a half hours of it being mercilessly kicked by the guy behind me.

Not wanting to make a scene, I kept my mouth shut the entire plane ride. Why is it so damn hard for us to be mean to people we’ll never even see again?

We don’t just fight with the ones we love most; we’re also more likely to cheat on them.

When we find out someone has cheated on his or her significant other, we’re at a loss for words. We think “How could he do that to someone he loves unconditionally?”

Here’s why: It’s no secret that our brains feel romantic love when we fall hard for someone. But there’s more to it than that.

According to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, there are a total of three different parts of our brain that light up when we’re in love:

The first is romantic love, which keeps our focus to mate on one single person. The second is sex drive, which motivates us to do the exact opposite: It gets us wanting to experiment with a handful of partners to multiply our genes. The third is attachment, which brings about that feeling of security associated with having a long-term partner. This brain system, of course, is driven by our primal desire to start a family.

But sometimes, these three brain systems fall out of sync with one another.

We’re capable of feeling deeply attached to a long-term partner, feeling intense romantic love for someone else and feeling sexual attraction for a third person all at the same time.

In other words, we not only fight but also cheat simply because it’s in our nature. Sometimes, betrayals of people to whom we’ve made promises are too convoluted to rationalize.

We know that at the end of the day, those who love us won’t stop loving us.

It’s common sense that strangers and acquaintances are more likely to judge you for acting balls-to-the-wall crazy.

If I flipped out on a fellow New Yorker strolling alongside me on the sidewalk, he would think I’m a crazy bag lady, fling his briefcase as far as he could and run for New Jersey.

But our loved ones love us despite our crazy, and they will continue to love us for it (well, most of them will). So keep fighting the good fight, kids.