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Rehashing your problems with friends can turn into a bad habit

Photo by Maria Korneeva/Getty

by Shayla Love + BIO





Although ‘co-rumination’ bolsters relationships in some ways, it also distracts from other, better coping methods

It’s Friday night. You’re sitting down to dinner with your best friend, with no limit on your time together. What do you talk about? It’s one of life’s delights to enter into deep discussion with a friend, whether it’s about your love lives, your jobs, your five-year plans, or the places you dream of living. But there’s one type of relating that can end up backfiring if you do it too often.

It’s called co-rumination: when people talk together about their problems, how bad those problems are, why they’re occurring, and how terrible it’s making them feel. In certain relationships, people gravitate toward ruminating over the same issues again and again. Maybe your friend wants to go over the timeline of their last breakup once more, despite having done so many times already over many months. Or you describe at length, and repeatedly, how terrible it made you feel to be passed over for a promotion at work, and how much you dislike your co-worker who got the raise instead.

Co-rumination can make you feel closer to your friends, but engaging in too much of it can have a variety of negative side effects, such as intrusive thoughts, worrying and symptoms of depression. ‘At least in Western cultures, getting problems off our chest is thought to make us feel better,’ wrote Amanda Rose – a developmental psychologist at the University of Missouri who coined the term co-rumination – in 2002. ‘The idea that talking about problems could make us feel worse may seem counterintuitive.’

To avoid the pitfalls of co-rumination, and retain the perks, the solution isn’t to keep all your problems to yourself but to recognise how too much of a certain kind of conversation can be unhelpful.

The word ‘ruminate’ originally meant ‘to chew cud’ – it’s what cows and goats do when they munch on tough grasses. These days the word is also used to refer to chewing on thoughts: rumination is a form of repetitive thinking.

In psychology, rumination is when a continuous process of thinking takes on an anxious or depressive tone. It can include dwelling on negative events or ideas about yourself, intrusive thoughts about what might happen in the future, and catastrophising. In a 1991 study, the psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema suggested that when people with depression ruminate on their symptoms and the possible causes and consequences, that can worsen symptoms.

People overestimate how much their friends want to be dwelling on the negative

In the early 2000s, Rose realised that even though seeking out social support is connected to better emotional wellbeing, talking about your problems with other people could also be taken to an extreme. ‘I became interested in the idea that rumination is not always solitary,’ she wrote in her 2021 review on co-rumination.

Many people feel as though by frequently focusing on a problem, they will somehow solve it or derive some other positive outcome, says Julia Felton, a clinical psychologist and professor at Michigan State University. ‘But what ends up happening,’ she says, ‘is that just dwelling incessantly on a problem tends to lead to more problematic mental health outcomes.’

When you’re facing big decisions or stress, it’s natural to get support from people close to you and problem-solve with them. But co-rumination is more than just having a conversation about a vexing problem and seeking solutions. For many people it becomes an excessive and counterproductive pattern. The Co-Rumination Questionnaire that Rose developed asks people how much they agree with statements such as: ‘When my friend has a problem, I always try to get my friend to tell me every detail about what happened’ and ‘When we talk about a problem one of us has, we usually talk about that problem every day even if nothing new has happened.’ In a friendship that is based on co-rumination, you may mostly or only talk about the bad parts of your life, rehashing them over and over, wondering where they came from and what their consequences will be, and focusing on the negative emotions around those problems.

Conversations featuring co-rumination may also involve biases in perception that help to perpetuate the behaviour. Ashley Tudder, a psychologist at Washington University in St Louis, and colleagues have found evidence suggesting that people sometimes overestimate how much their friends want to be dwelling on the negative. That could lead people to engage in more co-ruminating behaviour themselves – increasing overall co-rumination and its side effects.

When people become closer through ruminating together, that too can lead to more rumination, says Tanya Tompkins, a clinical psychologist and professor at Linfield University, Oregon. As part of a 2007 study, Rose and her colleagues followed girls in grades three through nine for six months. Levels of co-rumination among friends were predictive of both higher friendship quality and an increase in anxiety and depression symptoms, which in turn predicted higher amounts of co-rumination over time.

‘Co-rumination is so socially reinforcing, but may actually weaken our emotion regulation capacity,’ says Lindsey Stone, an associate professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University. That’s because people who regularly co-ruminate might always reach for the same tool to manage difficult things in their lives: discussing the problem and focusing on the negative. This tendency can displace alternatives such as coming up with solutions, practising coping strategies, or just saying: ‘That’s enough talking about this, let’s go shopping or see a movie.’

Compared to many other behaviours that can increase anxiety and depression symptoms, co-rumination is unusual for its apparent positive features, such as boosting intimacy with others. When you talk about your negative emotions with another person, and they validate them, that can make you feel closer in your relationship over time. ‘We feel very supported by this process,’ Stone says.

Who you co-ruminate with partly determines the effect it has on you

People tend to co-ruminate more about problems in their various relationships than about concerns related to academics or sports, Rose has observed. ‘This may be because interpersonal problems are inherently ambiguous,’ she wrote in her 2021 review, and so there is more to discuss. It can be challenging to figure out the cause of tensions with a romantic partner or a parent, for example. People often have a craving to dissect these kinds of issues, and bring them to another person to do so.

Much of the research on co-rumination so far has focused on same-sex friendships, though studies have also observed it among other-sex friends, romantic partners, spouses, parents, co-workers and siblings. It seems to increase from late childhood into the teenage years, at least among girls. Research indicates that there are higher levels of co-rumination among female friends than male friends, on average; however, as Rose’s review noted, studies suggest that men might co-ruminate as much as women do in their romantic relationships and cross-sex friendships.

Some researchers have proposed that who you co-ruminate with partly determines the effect it has on you. If you take your troubles to someone who is supportive and eventually encourages you to move beyond just dwelling on problems, it may not have such a negative impact later on.

People who like to co-ruminate find each other. If one person seeks to co-ruminate, and their friend jumps straight to offering solutions, it can feel abrupt, or not what the first person was craving. They might go seek out someone who will let them simply talk about their problems instead.

Notice if you and the other person endlessly repeat the same stories

If you suspect that you have a relationship that has veered too much into co-rumination, Stone suggests asking yourself: ‘How do you feel after conversations? More relieved, or even more worked up and stressed out?’ If the latter, it could suggest that you’ve been dwelling on the negative too much, rather than addressing problems with the other person in a constructive way. Co-rumination can also spawn individual rumination: after you hash out your existential career problems with a friend, you might go home and continue to mull it over by yourself. If you find yourself ruminating a lot on your own after seeing a certain person, that could be another sign that the relationship is getting co-rumination heavy.

If co-ruminating conversations do seem to be worsening already negative feelings, Tompkins suggests a few intentions you can keep in mind when you and a friend share your problems with each other. You can talk about what’s going on in your life as a way of processing emotions but try not to speculate too much on the causes and consequences of your problems. For example, rather than wonder aloud for the hundredth time why you got dumped, you could share that you’re feeling insecure or lonely, and talk about what you might do to feel better. When the other person is sharing about something in their life, you can actively listen but also ask questions that can lead to taking new and different perspectives. Instead of just dwelling on a friend’s past breakup, you might ask about their plans for dating, or other plans they have that they’re excited about. Notice if you and the other person endlessly repeat the same stories, with no new processing or additions – and some of the time, suggest going to do a fun activity together instead.

We should be able to share tough moments and feelings with our closest friends, and doing so brings us closer together. But to avoid getting stuck in the shadow of co-rumination, remember to step out of it occasionally and bond over the lighter parts of life, not just the sorrows.





27 June 2024