We often hear about physical aggression in relationships and know that it is absolutely not acceptable. It’s easy to recognize. When we see someone physically hurting another (or an object) out of a desire to control behavior, we’re witnessing physical aggression. But what about the less obvious relational aggression, or using relationships to control others? How do you know when you’re seeing relational aggression and what do you do about it? A recent study by Jason Carroll, David Nelson, and a team of scholars from Brigham Young University helped explain how to identify and avoid relational aggression in our relationships.
The study found two common forms of relational aggression couples use to control each other, most often in the midst of conflict.
1. Love Withdrawal
What is it? Any act which seeks to control or hurt your partner through the use of limiting affection and expressions of love. The “silent treatment” and withholding sex or other physical contact are common love withdrawal tactics.
Why do we do it? Those who use love withdrawal often seek to control the behavior of their partner by using expressions of love as a reward for good behavior and withdrawal of affection as a punishment. What we often don’t realize when we use these tactics is that the withdrawal of the expressions of love actually limits our ability to even feel love for our partner.
Why does it hurt? Experiencing frequent love withdrawal will make your partner begin to feel that your love is conditional and therefore will be lost if they make a mistake big enough. This creates anxiety about the stability of the relationship. Because of this, it may discourage investment in the relationship, which can then decrease overall satisfaction. Less relationship satisfaction creates grounds for more conflict, and the cycle repeats.
What to do instead? Instead of seeking to control each other through the withholding of affection, try to show an increase of love during conflict by trying to understand your partner’s side. When you understand your partner’s side, you can more easily see how your different views can work together to create a more satisfying resolution for both of you. Showing more love during conflict also increases your trust in each other and shows that your love is not conditional on behavior, or agreement, with one another.
2. Social Sabotage
What is it? An act which seeks to limit a partner’s acceptance and validity within their social network. A wife sharing private information about her husband with a mother or sister with the intent to recruit them to her side of an argument, or the use of embarrassment and gossip to make another lose face are common examples of social sabotage.
Why do we do it? Those who use social sabotage may or may not realize what they are doing. Sometimes, we talk to good friends or family members about our relationship conflict because we want help. But when we do, we may find ourselves taking it a step further and seeking support for our side of the argument, which may then lead us to attempt to discredit our partner’s view of the problem. We may also have established patterns of discussing problems with close friends before entering a romantic relationship, and we keep those patterns going.
Why does it hurt? Whether or not you recognize your use of social sabotage as such, it still hurts your partner and your relationship. When you try to get others to take your side of an argument, you send two possible messages to your partner. One, you only want validation for your side of the argument and are not willing to understand their side. Two, you trust your friends and family more than your partner. Both of these messages can decrease your trust in one another and your ability to work as a team when resolving conflict. Your inability to effectively resolve conflict then undermines your ability to create a satisfying relationship and creates more conflict.
What to do instead? Your desire for validation, or wanting to feel someone is on your side, is not a bad thing. But you need to seek it first from your partner. If you find you are not being validated by your partner try approaching the conflict from a different angle, focusing on why you have a certain view rather than simply trying to express your view. This opens the door for understanding, which can then provide better grounds for validation. Sometimes, you may find that you do need an outside source to resolve conflict, but when this happens you should go to someone who is less likely to be biased towards one or the other, and you should go together.
It doesn’t take much to realize that the greatest harm to relationships when you use relational aggression during conflict is the potential to spiral into a vicious cycle of more conflict and unhealthy tactics. The best way to avoid this cycle is to remember that it’s more important to seek connection with your partner than to be right. When you seek true connection, built on trust and unconditional love, you’ll find that you actually end up feeling more control in your relationship.
If you’re concerned that you may be caught in a cycle of relational aggression, try taking our RELATE assessment here for tips on where you and your partner could be more understanding of one another.
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“Remember that a successful marriage depends on two things: (1) finding the right person and (2) being the right person.”
- Carrie Snow
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