Many people remember the middle school drama when rumors spread quickly or peer misunderstandings led to the “silent treatment.” In research on relationships, these practices have names. Rumor spreading and gossiping are called “social sabotage” and the silent treatment is one way to engage in “love withdrawal.”
Both these behaviors are considered “relational aggression” or as one researcher described it, “behavior intended to damage a relationship or hurt someone through manipulation or social exclusion.” While we might believe these behaviors are most associated with the young and inexperienced, a careful look reveals that in some ways we might still find ourselves in either a victim or perpetrator role in our most important adult relationships.
Avoiding Social Sabotage in a Relationship
Though spreading rumors, gossiping, or speaking openly about private matters can sometimes appear harmless, these forms of social sabotage can weaken relationships. To maintain strong trust in a relationship, certain sensitive matters should be kept between partners to maintain an appropriate level of confidentiality. For example, talking with a friend about a disagreement you had with your partner—all the while highlighting the many ways your partner is to blame for the disagreement—is one way of engaging in social sabotage since it may focus on your partner’s faults and not tell the whole story.
At times, this private information gets shared to relieve frustration or vent and not because they want to hurt the relationship. However, this temporary relief can add to the problems that already exist. For example, once the issue is resolved, the solution may not be reported to the third party, meaning that they may continue to have a negative impression of your partner or marriage. Also, the negative things you have shared may make their way back to your partner, even after the original issue is solved, which can possibly lead to feelings of betrayal by the partner and revive the previously resolved conflict. Finally, sharing private information with others runs the risk that some will, for reasons of their own, abuse the information you shared by sharing it with others or exaggerating details, and thus create further problems for the marriage.
To avoid engaging in social sabotage, it is best to avoid venting to others about private matters, especially in times when feelings are angry or unresolved since this usually leads to criticizing the spouse or attempting to recruit others to “take your side” in the matter. Rather, build respect in the marriage by addressing private marital problems privately with your partner. When appropriate, choose to take responsibility for your part in resolving the issue. Finally, always use language that strengthens, rather than destroys the goodwill in the relationship.
Avoiding Love Withdrawal in a Relationship
Another type of relational aggression is the withdrawal of love, attention, or time when feeling injured by the partner. Taking an opportunity to let your partner know that you need time to think or to cool down when tempers run high can be a healthy reaction. By contrast, however, the “silent treatment” is an unhealthy form of withdrawal, since it is often used as a way to withhold love or affection from the partner in an attempt to punish or manipulate him or her. Making your time, attention, and affection conditional to another’s behavior is a type of love withdrawal that sabotages the free flow of positive feelings that keeps relationships strong.
Healthy marriages are built upon trust and unconditional love. However, trust can erode when the freely given, unconditional kind of love that builds a marriage is reduced to a meet-my-conditions-first-and-then-I-will-love-you type of relationship. Setting these conditions and regularly withdrawing your time and attention to make a point can subtly promote the idea that conversation, time spent, and affection are bargaining chips in the marriage. Rather than solving problems, these tactics often leave partners feeling resentful and/or abandoned.
Here are three points to consider if forms of relational aggression have crept into your relationship:
Recognize Relational Aggression and Label It
Think back to times of difficulty in the marriage and see if you can find patterns—both healthy and unhealthy that you typically use to resolve conflict in the relationship. If you see any tendency to use relational aggression, consider when it might typically happen. Label it with your partner, discuss your desires to disrupt those patterns, and decide to work together to eliminate those behaviors in the future.
Set a tone for the discussion that is non-accusatory and allows you each to freely ask about your partner’s perceptions of your behavior in times of conflict. Take the opportunity to each apologize for the social sabotage that your partner may not know about—since sharing private or negative information often happens outside of their hearing. Share any concerns with one another about times when using love withdrawal made for awkward and difficult moments in the relationship. Hearing your partner’s feedback may not immediately be music to your ears but clearing the air and choosing to move forward with better boundaries can improve the relationship. Finally, if either of you has felt sidelined or disrespected in the way that disputes are normally handled, consider asking your partner more about why they choose to respond in that way and listen with respect to gain understanding. Perceptions sometimes loom large when actions are judged, even though those actions may not have been undertaken with ill intent. Intentionally moving forward together determined to avoid the negative patterns is a first step.
Choose Confidants Together
At times, the choice to turn to a trusted mentor, friend, family member, or counselor in order to get help with sticky issues or big decisions may provide a needed third opinion. Perhaps you decide to take a non-private, but important question, such as which model of car to buy next month to a family friend who has expertise in car sales and can direct you well. These conversations can lead to information that can be very helpful in moving forward and should be done with the consent of both partners. Especially when the issue has to do with more private parts of the marriage, such as financial decisions or sexual relationships, take time to be sure that you and your spouse are on the same page about the details you will share and the expertise needed. Then, choose someone who you both feel will give good advice, will support your relationship and not take sides, and who can answer questions in accurate and informative ways. During the conversation, remember that there is no need to share information that leaves your spouse feeling undermined rather than part of the team.
Communicate Your Feelings Clearly
In the process of getting to know a person on a deep level, moments will inadvertently occur when touchy issues that you did not realize were concerns that may be uncovered. Maybe the comment you made would not have embarrassed you, so you assume it would also be funny and not embarrassing to your spouse. When your spouse seems anxious or upset about a comment you make, take time to inquire and apologize. When you are unhappy about something happening that seems to be sabotaging your relationship, communicate your concerns clearly, rather than using the subtle tactics of relational aggression, such as the silent treatment.
Find an appropriate time, place, and tone to tell your spouse how you feel. By communicating your feelings in matters large and small, you and your partner can access a clearer avenue for promoting change than allowing a problem to remain in the dark.
Finally, while it is normal to have conflict in any relationship, it is important to consider the impact your reaction to conflict may have on your partner. Love withdrawal and social sabotage may feel like natural coping mechanisms, but they fail to foster a long-lasting, loving marriage. Talking with those outside your marriage about frustrations will not help your partner know what needs to change; rather, it may make them feel that you have teamed up against them. Love withdrawal makes it clear that you are unhappy but may not promote the kind of change that verbal deliberation can. When conflicts arise, take a step back and recognize what you can do together with your partner to progress toward a committed, loving relationship, free of relational aggression.
1 Coyne, S. M., Nelson, D. A., Carroll, J. S., Smith, N. J., Yang, C., Holmgren, H. G., & Johnson, C. (2017). Relational aggression and marital quality: A five-year longitudinal study. Journal of Family Psychology, 31(3), 282-293. doi:10.1037/fam0000274
Written by Kaelie Crockett, a recent graduate of Brigham Young University’s School of Family, Home, and Social Sciences.