Does your partner engage in communicative aggression? Have they gone too far?
Posted Mar 27, 2019
Communicative aggression is an alternative way to talk about psychological abuse that spotlights communication and the aggressor instead of the victim’s cognitive state (psychological abuse). Below, I answer a series of questions that shed light on the concept, what it looks like in relationships, how it differs from other forms of hurtful communication, and the consequences of communicative aggression for relationships.
What is communicative aggression?
It's a pattern of verbal messages or nonverbal behaviors that hurt another person’s sense of self (Dailey, Lee, & Spitzberg). Communicative aggression takes many forms including verbal, psychological, or emotional abuse. It has negative repercussions for the target, the aggressor, and their relationship.
How is hurtful communication different from communicative aggression?
Whenever people communicate, they risk hurting each other. In fact, people we are close to often have a much easier time hurting us than people we do not know because we value the relationships of close others and they know a lot about us, including what to do and say to hurt us deeply. Hurtful communication varies in:
- Intensity – yelling and harsh language vs. calm language.
- Frequency – isolated occurrence vs. a pattern of hurtful messages.
- Perceived intent – the hurtful message was said to cause harm vs. an accident or misunderstanding.
(Read more about hurtful communication in family relationships here.)
Communicative aggression is more intense, strategic, patterned, and recurring, and is intended to harm another person’s self-image (goal-driven; Platt, Raile, & Burnett). Nearly everyone has experienced psychological or verbal aggression from a relational partner at some point, but one aggressive act is not abuse. In order for communicative aggression to be considered abuse, it must be recurring.
What does communicative aggression look like in relationships?
One of the most obvious forms is verbal abuse such as quickly losing one's temper, screaming at one’s partner for no reason, using an offensive tone, and being abusive in public. Someone who is communicatively aggressive might also restrict the freedom of their partner by checking up on them, monitoring them online, and invading their privacy by looking at their phone, bank account, or internet history. An aggressor might assert dominance in a degrading way, by forcing their partner to do things for them, ignoring or neglecting them, or threatening an affair. They might also cut off access to important resources like money or isolate their partner from friends or family by forbidding them to see or talk to members of their support network. Humiliation is another form of communicative aggression: Aggressors sometimes spread rumors or stories about their partners or say degrading things about them in public. If you are experiencing any of these forms of communicative aggression in recurring ways, you should seek help.
What happens in relationships where communicative aggression occurs?
Relationships marked by communicative aggression tend to experience low relationship quality and less communication than other relationships. Over time, the target of the abuse tends to have lower self-esteem and higher depression, anxiety, loneliness, and stress and ends up liking their partner less. Some targets experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or suicidal ideation. Ideally, relationships where communicative aggression occurs repeatedly end, but this is not always the case. If someone you care about is experiencing communicative aggression in your relationship, encourage them to seek help.
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Vangelisti, A. L. & Hampel, A. D. (2010). Hurtful communication: Current research and future directions. In S. W. Smith & S. R. Wilson (Eds.), New directions in interpersonal research (pp. 221-241). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Dailey, R. M., Lee, C. M., & Spitzberg, B. H. (2007). Communicative aggression: Toward a more interactional view of psychological abuse. The dark side of interpersonal communication, 297-326.
Anne Platt, C., Raile, A. N., & Burnett, A. (2016). Strategically mean: Extending the study of relational aggression in communication. Annals of the International Communication Association, 40(1), 151-172.