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:
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 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 it hurts
Experiencing frequent love withdrawal will make our partner begin to feel that our 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 a 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 we understand our partner’s side, we can more easily see how our different views can work together to create a more satisfying resolution for both of us. Showing more love during conflict also increases our trust in each other and shows that our love is not conditional on our behavior, or agreement, with one another.
2. Social Sabotage:
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 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 it hurts
Whether or not we recognize our use of social sabotage as such, it still hurts our partners and our relationships. When we try to get others to take our side of an argument, we send two possible messages to our partner. One, we only want validation for our side of the argument and are not willing to understand their side. Two, we trust our friends and family more than our partner. Both of these messages can decrease our trust in one another and our ability to work as a team when resolving conflict. Our inability to effectively resolve conflict then undermines our ability to create a satisfying relationship and creates more conflict.
What to do instead
Our desire for validation, or wanting to feel someone is on our side, is not a bad thing. But we need to seek it first from our partner. If you find you are not being validated by your partner try approaching the conflict from a different angle, focusing on why we have a certain view rather than simply trying to express our view. This opens the door for understanding, which can then provide better grounds for validation. Sometimes, we may find that we do need an outside source to resolve conflict, but when this happens we should go to someone who is less likely to be biased towards one of us, and we should go together.
It doesn’t take much to realize that the greatest harm to relationships when we 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 our partner than to be right. When we seek true connection, built on trust and unconditional love, we’ll find that we actually end up feeling more control in our 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:
Read the original article here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ab.20349/abstract