Long-term close relationships require a lot of work to maintain, and even the best of them may fall short at times from the ideals that we all hold about what constitutes a good relationship. 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 move on to settle them. Relational aggression is just that — the set of behaviors that inflict direct harm and are typically intentional.
The Brigham Young 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 study's five-year run, 311 couples remained. Most were white, but 19 percent were multiethnic; 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 that used "love withdrawal" 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 a 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 sibling or 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 friends, such patterns may drift into adulthood, when women continue to use friends or other family members as sounding boards for their marital issues. 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.
You can test your own tendencies toward the two forms of relational aggression that Coyne and her coauthors studied by seeing how you would answer these questions; they are meant to be answered as a report by one partner about the other in the current relationship, and rated from 1 (not at all true) to 7 (very true):
1. My partner gives me the silent treatment when I hurt his/her feelings in some way.
2. My partner has intentionally ignored me until I give in to his/her way about something.
3. My partner ignores me when s/he is angry with me.
4. My partner withholds affection or sex from me when he/she is angry with me.
1. My partner has gone “behind my back” and shared private information about me with other people (extended family, friends, and neighbors).
2. My partner gets other people to “take sides” with him/her and gets them upset with me, too.
3. My partner has tried to damage my reputation by sharing negative information about me to other people (extended family, friends, and neighbors).
4. My partner tries to embarrass me or make me look stupid in front of others.
5. My partner has spread negative information about me to be mean.
6. My partner has threatened to disclose negative information about me to others in order to get me to do things he/she wants.
(A separate, 5-item scale served to measure relational satisfaction, and included items such as “My relationship with my partner makes me very happy,” and “My relationship with my partner is very stable.”)
In tracking the inter-relationships of these measures for husbands and wives as they influenced each other over time, the Brigham Young researchers also controlled for age, years of schooling, ethnicity, number of children, and years married. The outcome was a highly complex statistical model, as you might imagine, but allowed for the researchers to observe several distinct trends.
Consistent with the idea that relational aggression can erode the quality of a marriage, the first set of findings showed that the more that both forms of aggression increased over time, the larger the decrease in marital quality. Second, love withdrawal was damaging from the perspective of both partners, but particularly so when the wife perceived this as a tactic used by the husband. For wives, love withdrawal didn't seem as negative because, according to the authors, it “is seen paradoxically as a form of pursuit of change rather than true withdrawal” (p. 289). Of course, wives do this at their own peril, because husbands who experience love withdrawal feel that their wives are withholding sex, rather than trying to institute positive change. For wives, using social sabotage seemed to have no ill effects on the perceived relationship quality of them or their husbands. Men who used social sabotage, by contrast, created a great deal of ill will in their wives, because their talking to others outside the relationship is less consistent with gender norms. It seemed, to the wives, to reflect an abuse of the greater power they already perceived men to hold in their relationships.
If partners think that they’re trying to “improve” their relationships by using relational aggression to provoke change, the Brigham Young study suggests that these strategies will have the opposite impact. Even if wives using social sabotage aren’t inflicting quite the same harm as husbands might, the authors note that “getting others involved in the relationship ... may sow the seeds for feelings of hurt and distrust” (p. 291). Instead of creating the toxic environment caused by going outside the marriage for support, the authors recommend that couples address their problems directly or seek professional help.
To sum up, when you feel beleaguered by problems in your relationship, consider whether your coping tactics are inadvertently reflecting one of these forms of aggression. They may seem to be harmless strategies that will be a vehicle for change but your partner won't see them in the same way. These findings show that tackling your problems in a head-on fashion will ultimately provide you with the more likely path toward fulfillment.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017
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