Information About Different Aggression Types Affect Intimate Relationships

Long-term close relationships require a lot of work to maintain and even the best one may fall short at times from the ideals that we all hold about what constitutes a good one. Arguments are inevitable and try as you might, you’re certain to have at least the occasional disagreement. It could be that you and your partner don’t see eye to eye on how much time to spend with your in-laws or whether you should get that new couch that one of you so desperately wants. Over the course of time, these disagreements come and go, but there’s a hope that they’ll go soon after they come. Much of the research on relationship satisfaction and the quality of a couple’s conflict resolution involves a one-shot examination using a correlational design, which limits the researcher’s ability to draw cause and effect conclusions. Further, many studies fail to study both partners in the relationship, meaning that they only get one person’s perspective.

Brigham Young University’s Sarah Coyne and colleagues (2017) studied relational aggression, which they define as “a behavior intended to damage a relationship or hurt someone through manipulation or social exclusion” (p. 282). This concept is slightly different than conflict resolution, which refers to the strategies that couples use after disputes arise and they then move on to settle them. Relational aggression is just that, the set of behaviors that inflict direct harm and is typically intentional. The Brigham Young University team tested married heterosexual couples, all participating in the “Flourishing Families Project (FFP), an ongoing study of the inner life of parents and their 10- to 14-year-old children. The sample was stratified according to social class and although the initial group consisted of 423 families, by the end of the 5 years that the study lasted, 311 couples remained. Most were White, but 19% were multiethnic, and most were college educated. Male and female relational aggression patterns were studied separately but their responses were tracked simultaneously.

The key measure of interest was a relational aggression and victimization scale designed for couples. The underlying framework of the study contrasted couples who used “lovewithdrawal” as a form of relational aggression with those who use what’s called “social sabotage.” In love withdrawal, you act aggressively against your relationship by what you do not do; i.e., communicate or allow yourself to show feelings toward your partner until your partner complies. Social sabotage is the form of relationship aggression in which you act out against your partner by telling others outside the relationship about what is happening but you don’t tell your partner. As the authors note, “Whereas love withdrawal keeps the tension within the marital relationship, social sabotage invites outsiders into the couple’s problems.” Social sabotage, in other words, has “the potential to inflict lasting damage … as the defamation of the spouse may endure over time” (p. 284). Imagine that one partner constantly lets a siblingor particular in-law know about every argument that the couple has. This makes it hard for that sibling or in-law to look the same way at the partner compared to the way this outsider would otherwise regard the partner. In turn, the partner loses face and may be less able to rely on that third party for support and affection.

Coyne and her colleagues predicted that women would be the more likely perpetrators of social sabotage. Given that teenagers are socialized from a young age to confide their relationship problems to their friends, such patterns may drift into adulthood when women continue to use friends or other family members as sounding boards for their marital problems. The perpetrators of social sabotage may not realize how damaging this type of relational aggression is or, even if they do, find it hard to modify their old patterns of behavior. For men, in contrast, this type of aggression may not be as commonly used, although when it is, the impact is particularly harmful given that men traditionally hold more power already over their partners.

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