When many people think of relationship aggression they stereotypically think of men hitting women, like the much publicized videotape of ex-NFL player Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancée, Janay, in an elevator in 2014. Observable forms of aggression such as this have helped shape our society’s view of relationship aggression as being limited to physical violence primarily performed by men against women.
Since the majority of research on conflict and aggression in relationships has focused on the overt and observable forms of aggression, we know very little about the less visible forms of relationship conflict.1 Although boys are typically more physically aggressive than girls, what researchers have been discovering is that girls perform more non-physical forms of relationship aggression, like spreading negative rumors about their partner or excluding them from social circles.2
Aggressive behavior that many of us shake our heads at in dismay while watching soap operas or talk shows like Jerry Springer occurs in every-day relationships too. In order to better understand relationship aggression in all of its forms, researchers from Brigham Young University studied whether or not spouses use relationally aggressive tactics to deal with conflict in their marriages and, if so, what is the impact of such forms of violence.
To find out the researchers interviewed 336 married couples from a large northwestern city and assessed how the couples respond to conflict. The partners were asked if things like any of the following happens to them: my partner has gone “behind my back” and shared private information about me with other people; when my partner has been angry or jealous of me, he/she has tried to damage my reputation by gossiping about me; my partner gives me the silent treatment when I hurt his/her feelings; my partner withholds affection or sex from me when he/she is angry with me.
The findings showed that forms of love withdrawal, such as intentionally ignoring one’s spouse or withholding sex during periods of conflict in the relationship, were used in varying degrees by 96% of wives and 88% of husbands. Social sabotage, like spreading negative information about the spouse, damaging a spouse’s reputation, getting others to take sides in an argument, or intentionally embarrassing a spouse in front of others, was done by 64% of the wives and 52% of the husbands surveyed.
The affected partner, not the offender, reported these behaviors and most of them said they did not occur frequently. Yet the above statistics show a very high prevalence across all marriages and occurrence in marriages with an average age of 16 years. The researchers concluded that relationship aggression in all of its forms really might not be fully understood as a feature of marital conflict.
The authors suggest the use of these conflict tactics (e.g., love withdrawal and social sabotage) constitute what others have labeled “normal marital sadism.”3 Specifically, husbands and wives have grievances as part of daily living, and although these grievances do not always result in overt conflict, spouses still want their partner to “pay” in some way. The BYU researchers suggest that occasional use of these manipulative behaviors may have little effect on the marriage relationship, and it is only when these acts become frequent does marital quality suffer and the likelihood of divorce increase.
While a man hitting his wife is shocking and attention grabbing it is fortunately not an element of most marriages. However, aggression appears to still exist in a lot of marriages if you know what to look for and it is important to note that it does not occur without having a negative affect on one or both partners.
1Carroll, J. S., Nelson, D. A., Yorgason, J. B., Harper, J. M., Ashton, R. H., & Jensen, A. C. (2010). Relational aggression in marriage. Aggressive behavior, 36(5), 315-329.
2Caplan, P. J., & Caplan, J. B. (2009). Thinking critically about research on sex and gender (3rd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
3McCarthy, B. W. (2008). Strategies for revitalizing a non-sexual marriage. Presentation at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Conference, Memphis, TN.
Kurt Smith, LMFT, LPCC, AFC – Website
Kurt’s research specializes in understanding men, women, and the issues they face in relationships together. His daily experience as a practicing clinician provides a unique window into examining the challenges facing today’s couples while applying present-day research to gain new insights.