14.2: The Dark Side of Relationships - Aggression
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- Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt
- SUNY New Paltz & SUNY Oswego via OpenSUNY
- Explain relational aggression.
- Explore relational aggression among women.
- Define and explain the term “verbal aggression.”
- Describe bullying and bullying in the workplace.
- Explain basic strategies for handling the dark side of interpersonal communication.
Relational aggression is defined as behaviors that harm others.26 Harm is created through damaging social relationships or feelings of acceptance. Research on relational aggression indicates that it involves both confrontational and nonconfrontational behaviors. Specific behaviors associated with confrontation, or direct behavior, include name-calling, cruel teasing, ridicule, and verbal rejection directed at the target. Nonconfrontational or indirect behaviors include spreading rumors, gossiping, and social manipulation.27,28 Adolescents use indirect aggression more than direct aggression to harm relationships.
Relationally Aggressive Categories
When researching 11 to 13-year-olds, five categories of relationally aggressive behaviors were identified.29 The categories are labeled inconsistent friendships, rumors/gossip, excluding/ditching friends, social intimidation, and notes/technological aggression. Additional research identified seven types of relationally aggressive behaviors among high school girls.30 Based on open-ended descriptions from high school girls, the following categories of relational aggression were found: the physical threat/physical attack, rejection, humiliation, betrayal, personal attack, boy manipulation, and relational depreciation. In addition to the categories of relationship aggression, it is essential to note that gossiping and spreading rumors were the most common forms of relational aggression across age groups.31,32
Relational Aggression in College: Bad and Normal
Current research indicates that relational aggression begins in childhood and extends into the workplace. Maintaining an awareness of this tendency may help to avoid this situation in the future. A challenge with relational aggression among women is that it is known to be negative and yet labeled as normal.33,34,35,36,37 Evidence of this dual perspective on relational aggression among women is found within the media in movies such as Mean Girls (also a Broadway musical). Because of the acceptance of this behavior as negative and normal, conversations were held with women to understand their explanation for engaging in negative behavior. Through these conversations, several themes emerged. These themes included (a) girls will be girls; (b) relational aggression as venting; (c) blaming the victim; (d) minimizing their role; and (e) regret. The “girls will be girls” theme is especially problematic because it indicates that women know that relational aggression has negative consequences, but they accept it as normal. Researchers report that college-aged women when discussing relational aggression made such statements as ‘‘something you expect [among women], drama and gossip and cattiness’’ and ‘‘typical girl stuff.’’ They concluded that women continue to engage in relational aggression because it is perceived to be normal. In other words, it is acceptable because everyone is doing it.38
The second theme that emerged in discussions of relational aggression among college-aged women was relational aggression as venting. Women regularly described gossiping, name-calling and talking behind someone’s back as cathartic in nature. It was described as a form of stress relief. It was concluded that women view this form of communication as acceptable because it is beneficial. This “excuse” makes it okay to vent to other women even if it might be harmful if discovered by the target.39
The third theme among women discussing relational aggression was “blaming the victim.” The majority of women reported that the targets were to blame for the relationally aggressive behavior because they were either “crazy” or engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior. Other reasons given were that the target was either mean to them first or “different.” For example, one girl reported targeting her roommate, whom she knew to be mentally ill. She blamed the girl by stating that the girl should have taken her medicine more regularly to control her behavior better. Additionally, the majority of women in their study stated that they engage in relational aggression because the target engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior.
A fourth theme related to relational aggression emerged in which women attempted to minimize their role. Study participants mainly reported that they were simply going along with the actual perpetrator and acted as an audience member. Individuals described themselves as listeners rather than being the real aggressor. Another way in which women attempted to minimize their role was to compare their behaviors to others. This comparison served to demonstrate that their behavior was not as aggressive as that of others.
Finally, women discussed feeling regret for having behaved in a relationally aggressive manner. Though the women did express regret, their regret was generally paired with blaming the victim. For example, participants acknowledged that they felt bad for behaving as they did even though the target was crazy.
Defining Verbal Aggression
Verbal aggression is defined as communication that attacks an individual’s self-concept intending to create psychological pain. If you have ever had an argument and been called a name or been put down, then you have been the target of verbal aggression. 40 Verbal aggression is considered a destructive form of communication. Because verbal aggression is regarded as a negative form of communication, researchers have worked to determine characteristics that may increase the likelihood of individuals behaving in an aggressive manner. Researchers found that six dimensions of self-esteem (defensive self-enhancement, moral self-approval, lovability, likability, self-control, and identity integration) were significantly and negatively related to trait verbal aggressiveness.41 History of familial verbal aggression was positively associated with the perceived acceptability of verbal aggression against a romantic partner, and this association was stronger for individuals with higher behavioral inhibition system scores. Individuals with high behavioral inhibition are more likely to be anxious and react nervously when facing punishment. In other words, people who have been exposed to verbal aggression are more likely to find it acceptable to engage in verbal aggression against a relational partner, especially when the individual also scores high in behavioral inhibition. Also, individuals who score high in behavioral inhibition are more likely to find verbal aggression to be acceptable regardless of whether they have been exposed to verbal aggression in the past.42
Perceptions of Verbal Aggression
If your parents/guardians ever told you that it wasn’t what you said, it was the way you said it, then they were offering you sage advice. Research shows that when engaged in interpersonal disputes, smaller amounts of verbal aggression were perceived when the affirming communicator style (relaxed, friendly, and attentive) was used.43 Thus the communicator’s style of communication impacted the perception of the message. Table 14.2.1 provides a list of the ten most common examples of verbally aggressive messages.44
|Type of Message||Example|
|Character Attacks||You’re a lying jerk!|
|Competence Attacks||You’re too stupid to manage our finances.|
|Background Attacks||You don’t even have a college degree!|
|Physical Appearance||You are as fat as a pig!|
|Maledictions||I wish you were dead.|
|Teasing||Your hair color makes you look like a clown.|
|Ridicule||Your nose looks like a beak.|
|Threats||I’ll leave you and you won’t have a dime to your name.|
|Swearing||Go to _____!|
|Nonverbal Emblems||shaking fists, “flipping off”|
Bullying is a form of communication in which an aggressive individual targets an individual who is perceived to be weaker. Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which a person of greater power attempts to inflict harm or discomfort on individuals. This definition also indicates that the behavior is repeated over time.45 For example, a child might call his friend an idiot on the playground one day. A single incident of name-calling would not be considered bullying, but if it happened day after day, then the name-calling would be considered bullying. You may have been bullied or known someone who was bullied. It is also possible that you bullied someone. Bullies use their authority, size or power to create fear in others. Bullying is known to have negative consequences, such as dropping out of school. It was found that the actions of bullies leave their victims feeling helpless, anxious, and depressed.46 Other researchers report three types of bullying: physical, verbal, and relational.47
Physical bullying involves hitting, kicking, pulling hair, strapping a female’s bra strap or giving a “wedgie.” Witnesses easily observe this type of bully. You may recall being the victim of these behaviors, engaging in these behaviors, or watching others engage in these behaviors. Physical bullying can be prevented by observers, such as teachers or even peers. There are several Public Service Campaigns directed toward bystanders to let the bystander know that they can help prevent or stop bullying. However, bullies may corner their victims in a more private setting, knowing that the weaker individual will not be able to defend themselves.
The second type of bullying is indirect or relational bully. This form of bullying is the manipulation of social relationships to inflict hurt upon another individual.48 This type of bullying includes either withholding friendship or excluding. Relational bullying often increases as children age because physical bullying decreases. Relational bullying is particularly problematic because it is very painful for victims, but cannot be readily observed. One might wonder what a teacher or parent/guardian might do when two friends suddenly begin to exclude a third friend. The rejection is so painful, but it seems nearly impossible to require adolescents to continue liking and including the rejected child. An interesting finding in relation to this type of bullying is that females are more likely to engage in this form of bullying.49
The third type of bullying is verbal bullying and includes threats, degrading comments, teasing, name-calling, putdown, or sarcastic comments.50 This form of bullying is easily observed as well and can be prevented by authorities and peers. The effects of this form of bullying are similar to the impact of physical and relational bullying.
The negative consequences of childhood bullying have driven communication scholars to develop educational tools to provide to teachers and other authority figures. Researchers developed a model to assist teachers in discerning playful, prosocial teasing from destructive bullying.51 The Teasing Totter Model outlines behaviors that range from prosocial teasing to bullying and offers recommendations for responding to each. Teasing in a prosocial manner is usually done among friends, laughter is involved and even affection. Bullying, on the other hand, is a repeated negative behavior in which the victim is visibly distressed. There is a clear power difference in size, age, or ability.
The inherent ease of using the Internet and communicating via the Internet has created an excellent and convenient venue for bullying. Cyberbullying is intentional harm inflicted through the medium of electronics that is repeated over time. 52 Cyberbullying affects victims academically and socially with 20% of victims reporting Internet avoidance. 53 When using electronic communication technologies, young people are exposed to interpersonal violence, social aggression, harassment, and mistreatment. 54 Cyberbullying includes behaviors such as flaming, which involves posting provocative or abusive posts, and outing where personal information is posted.55 Cyberbullying is so prevalent that social media such as Facebook have policies to help users avoid this phenomenon. Consider how often you engage with your peers through social media versus your counterparts who were teenagers/young adults in the 1980s. Opportunities for communicating with peers were limited to FtF or via landline phones. Thus opportunities for bullying could be confined to school or landline phones such that bullying was limited to eight hour school days and phone calls that could be ended immediately upon becoming uncomfortable. Now, there is no end to when bullying can take place. Cyberbullying can take place 24/7, and the only way to avoid it is to cut off a major from of staying connected with one’s world via cell phone or Internet. Researchers are just now beginning to understand the impact of cyberbullying, and some speculate that cyberbullying is worse than traditional bullying, but research shows mixed results on this assertion.
Discovering Self-Concept - Who are you?
What should I do if I’m being bullied, harassed or attacked by someone on Facebook?
Facebook offers these tools to help you deal with bullying and harassment. Depending on the seriousness of the situation:
Unfriend — Only your Facebook friends can contact you through Facebook chat or post messages on your Timeline.
Block — This will prevent the person from starting chats and messages with you, adding you as a friend and viewing things you share on your Timeline.
Report the person or any abusive things they post.
The best protection against bullying is to learn how to recognize it and how to stop it. Here are some tips about what you should — and shouldn’t — do:
Don’t respond. Typically, bullies want to get a response — don’t give them one.
Don’t keep it a secret. Use Facebook’s Trusted Friend tool to send a copy of the abusive content to someone you trust who can help you deal with the bullying. This will also generate a report to Facebook.
Document and save. If the attacks persist, you may need to report the activity to an ISP and they will want to see the messages.
Visit Facebook’s Family Safety Center for more information, tools and resources. www. facebook.com/help/116326365118751/
In 2013, Anke Görzig and Kjartan Ólafsson set out to determine what makes a bully a cyberbully. They recruited 1,000 Internet-using children aged 9–16 in 25 European countries. The researchers also interviewed at least one of the children’s parents for the study. The total sample size was 25,142.
The questionnaire the researchers used was translated into 25 different languages. The interviews took place in the children’s home. Any sensitive questions were asked on a private questionnaire. As you can see, this project was a massive undertaking.
Of the 25,142 participants, 2,821 admitted to engaging in behaviors either online or FtF that could be labeled as bullying.
The researchers found that “cyberbullies (all else being equal) were at least four times as likely to engage in risky online activities and twice as likely to spend more time online as well as finding it easier to be themselves online.”56 Furthermore, the researchers found that girls were more likely to engage in cyberbullying than FtF bullying when compared to their male counterparts.
Görzig, A., & Ólafsson, K. (2013). What makes a bully a cyberbully? Unravelling the characteristics of cyberbullies across 25 European countries. Journal of Children & Media, 7(1), 9-27. doi.org/10.1080/174 82798.2012.739756
Workplace Bullying Typology
Though it is hard to imagine among adults, bullying continues in the work environment. Bully can lead to loss of employment, poor attendance and depression. There are several typologies of bullying. In research conducted with nurses, a typology of bullying was created that is particularly comprehensive.57 The typology of these researchers includes the bullying behavior and related tactics. Workplace bullying behaviors involve those seen in Table 14.2.1. As you can see, workplace bullying behaviors involve a wide range of tactics.
Relationships involve work! Media portrays relationships as romantic endeavors, and the darker side of relationships remains buried. In real-life, individuals may be inclined to hide relationship difficulties, which further perpetuates the notion that relationships simply happen and that everyone lives happily ever after.
Research repeatedly demonstrates that how emotion is communicated will affect the outcome of the communication situation. Relationship partners are more satisfied when positive emotions are communicated rather than negative emotions. Four forms of anger expression have been identified.58 The four forms of anger expression range from direct and nonthreatening to avoidance and denial of angry feelings. Anger expression is more productive when the emotion is communicated directly and in a nonthreatening manner. In most circumstances, direct communication is more constructive.
|Form of Expression||Explanation of Form|
|Assertion||Direct statements, nonthreatening, explaining anger|
|Aggression||Direct and threatening, may involve criticism|
|Passive Aggression||Indirectly communicate negative affect in a destructive manner – “the silent treatment”|
|Avoidance||Avoiding the issue, denying angry feelings, pretending not to feel anything|
Affirming Communicator Style
When communicating with one’s relational partner, adopting an affirming communicator style may lead to positive outcomes. The affirming communicator style was initially conceptualized to involve friendly, relaxed, and attentive behaviors.59 The friendly communicator style involves encouraging others, acknowledging others’ contributions, and being tactful in communication with others. The relaxed style involves being calm and collected while avoiding nervous mannerisms that indicate that one is tense. Being attentive involves listening carefully to others and demonstrating an empathic approach to others. Research has demonstrated that the affirming communicator style causes receivers to perceive that there is less verbal aggression. 60
One final aspect of the dark side of interpersonal communication to be considered is deceptive communication. We are all familiar with the concept of lying and deception. We are taught from a young age that we should not lie, but we often witness the very people instructing us not to lie engaging in “little white lies” or socially acceptable lies. As communication scholars, we must distinguish between a lie that is told for the benefit of the receiver and a lie that is told with more malicious intent. Lies told with more malicious intent are referred to as deception and are the focus of this section. Judee Burgoon and David Buller define deception as, ‘‘a deliberate act perpetuated by a sender to engender in a receiver beliefs contrary to what the sender believes is true to put the receiver at a disadvantage.”61 Deceptive communication can exist in any type of relationship and in any context. H. Dan O’Hair and Michael Cody discuss deception as a common message strategy that is used in a manner similar to other forms of communication. 62 They state that deception is often purposeful, goal-directed, and can be used as a relational control device. We will begin our discussion of deception by exploring three types of deception. This discussion will be followed by exploring the work of Jennifer Guthrie and Adrianne Kunkel, who discussed why romantic partners use deception and how often.63
Types of Deception
Three types of deception are discussed in the field of communication: falsification, concealment, and equivocation.64 Falsification is when a source deliberately presents information that is false or fraudulent. For example, the source of deception may state, “I did not drink when I went out last night,” even though the source did drink. Researchers have found that falsification is the most common form of deception.
Concealment is another form of deception in which the source deliberately withholds information. For example, if two partners are living in two different states and one partner is offered a job in the same state as the other partner, but the job offer is not revealed to the other partner, then concealment has occurred. Consider the consequences of concealment in this situation. By failing to reveal the job offer, the source is preventing the receiver from operating with all of the known facts. For example, a decision to remain in a long-distance relationship might be affected if one partner is not willing to take a job that will mean living in the same state.
The third form of deception is referred to as equivocation. This form of deception represents a moral grey area for some because some see equivocation as a clear lie. Equivocation is a statement that could be interpreted as having more than one meaning. For example, you ask your romantic partner if she talked to her ex-boyfriend last night, and she says, “no, I didn’t talk to him,” but she did text with him, then an equivocation has occurred. Technically, the statement, “I did not talk to him” is true, but only technically because communication did occur in a different form. Consider how the answer may have been changed if the question was, “Did you communicate with your ex-boyfriend last night?” Now that we have discussed what deception is and several types of deception, we can examine how deception functions in romantic relationships.
Lies in Romantic Relationships
Jennifer Guthrie and Adrianne Kunkel explored the reasons why romantic partners engage in deception in their article titled “Tell Me Sweet (And Not-So-Sweet) Little Lies: Deception in Romantic Relationships.” 65 The researchers asked 67 college students to record their deceptive communication in diaries for seven days. At the end of seven days, the students returned their diaries. The researchers counted the deceptive communication acts in all of the diaries and determined that the 67 students produced 327 deceptive acts in a seven-day period. The results of this part of their study showed that 147 of the deceptive acts were lies, 61 were exaggerations, half-truths accounted for 56 of the deceptive acts, 35 of the deceptive acts were diversionary responses, 26 were secrets, and two uses of deception were not able to be categorized due to lack of detail in the diary. On average, each participant engaged in 4.88 deceptive acts in seven days.
In addition to studying how often participants lied, Guthrie and Kunkel66 were interested in why the students lied. The students provided 334 reasons for the 327 deceptive acts that they reported. The researchers were able to place the 334 reasons into six overarching motives for lying: engaging in relational maintenance, managing face needs, negotiating dialectical tensions, establishing relational control, continuing previous deception, and unknown. In the table that follows, each motive for deception is broken down further.
Managing Face Needs
Supporting Positive Face
Negotiating Dialectical Tensions
Establishing Relational Control
Continuing Previous Deception
Participants indicated that they had lied about something in the past and the particular act of deception was a way of continuing or maintaining the lie
Participants reported that they could not identify their motives for using deception
Through this exploration of the frequency of lies and motives for doing so, Guthrie and Kunkel uncovered an important finding. The students in the study responded positively to examining their deceptive acts. They also discovered that students held inaccurate perceptions of their use of deception and either under-reported or over-reported how often they engaged in deception. The researchers concluded that reflecting upon deception will allow individuals to understand how deception impacts relationships in both positive and negative ways. Awareness seems to be key to managing deception in romantic relationships.
Domestic Violence or Intimate Partner Violence
“Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another. It includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats, and emotional/psychological abuse.” 67 The Center for Disease Control (CDC) expands upon this definition and labels domestic violence as “intimate partner violence.” 68 These include sexual violence, stalking, physical violence, and psychological aggression. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Vioence Survey (NISVS), an intimate partner is described as a romantic or sexual partner and includes spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, people with whom they dated, were seeing, or “hooked up.”
According to the NISVS 2015 Data Brief, one in three were victims of contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.69 One in four (30 million) women and one in ten (12.1 million) men reported intimate partner violence-related impact which includes being fearful, concerned for safety, injury, need for medical care, needed help from law enforcement, missed at least one day of work, missed at least one day of school, any post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, need for housing services, need for victim advocate services, need for legal services and contacting a crisis hotline
Sexual violence is a specific form of domestic violence that may be experienced by women and men and includes rape, which can consist of being forcibly penetrated (or penetrating) someone else, sexual coercion, and unwanted sexual contact. 70
The CDC considers an individual to be a stalking victim if they “experienced multiple stalking tactics or a single stalking tactic multiple times by the same perpetrator and felt very fearful, or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed as a result of the perpetrator’s behavior.”71
The following behaviors are considered to be stalking by the CDC:
- Unwanted phone calls, voice or text messages, hang-ups
- Unwanted emails, instant messages, messages through social media
- Unwanted cards, letters, flowers, or presents
- Watching or following from a distance, spying with a listening device, camera, or global positioning system (GPS)
- Approaching or showing up in places, such as the victim’s home, workplace, or school when it was unwanted
- Leaving strange or potentially threatening items for the victim to find
- Sneaking into the victim’s home or car and doing things to scare the victim or let the victim know the perpetrator had been there
In follow-up questions, respondents who were identified as possible stalking victims were asked about their experiences with two additional tactics:
- Damaged personal property or belongings, such as in their home or car
- Made threats of physical harm
Sally Fiona Kelly explored aggression concerning violent sentiments. 72 In her study, she sought to understand why individuals engaged in violent behavior. Her study demonstrates that individuals who have committed violent acts in a relationship believe violence is acceptable and are prepared to use violence. This finding suggests that one approach to reducing violence is to focus on changing beliefs and thoughts associated with violence. Strategic communication scholars can create campaigns to target beliefs related to violence. In a similar study, participants predicted that women would become more aggressive while watching videos of males and females in conflict. When watching videos of “fighting” couples, males predicted the conflict would lead to increasing levels of aggression more often than females. Male participants also recommended the use of more aggressive behaviors during conflict. 73 Thus this study underscores the change perceptions of the acceptability of aggressive behavior. This same study assessed participant’s perceptions of the likelihood of conciliatory strategies on the part of the individuals in fights. Participants in the study believe the chance of forgiveness and resolution decreased as conflict increase. In light of this finding, relational partners should apologize and forgive earlier in conflict to reduce escalation that may increase the chance of violence.
Gaining an awareness of destructive communication behaviors in relationships may help avoid the emotional consequences of destructive communication as well as the loss of a relationship. Individuals engage in information seeking strategies to gain insight into the current state-of-the-relationship. As discussed earlier in this chapter, one such strategy is secret testing. This strategy ranges from the not so secretive “direct” secret test to the entrapping “triangle test.” Other secret tests involve endurance, indirect suggestions, public presentation, separation, and third-party testing. Although secret tests may allow relationship partners to understand their relationship through subtle and sometimes overt information seeking, the direct approach seems to be the one that relationship partners use when they wish to maintain the relationship.
Relational aggression is a harmful form of behavior that serves to either withhold friendship or manipulate the social relationships of another individual. This form of behavior is particularly prevalent among females and begins in early childhood and continues into the workplace. The consequences of relational aggression are emotional pain and withdrawal.
Verbal aggression is a communication strategy in which the self-concept is attacked rather than arguing about the issues of a controversial topic. The impact of verbal aggression can be lessened if the communicator used and affirming style of communication. Bullying is similar to verbal aggression and relational aggression. Bullying is a destructive form of communication in which the aggressor targets an individual who is weaker either in strength, size, or ability. The effects of bullying can range from relatively mild (hurt feelings) to devastating (successful suicide attempts).
One cannot wholly escape the possibility of becoming a victim of the darker side of communication. Still, individuals can work to avoid engaging in the behaviors associated with the dark side of communication. To do so, consider adopting an affirming style of communication, focusing on the topic during arguments rather than the self-concept of others, and working to prevent bullying when it is observed in others. Also, relational aggression can be avoided by refusing to engage in the behavior and refusing to participate when others are doing so. In particular, we should not simply accept that relational aggression is a natural occurrence among females. Finally, talk with your partner about their beliefs concerning aggressive behavior and violence to make sure your partner does not believe violence is an acceptable means of dealing with conflict.
- Relational Aggression is a hurtful form of communication which manipulates relationships and social standing.
- The consequences of bullying range from lowered self-esteem to suicide attempts, which may or may not be successful.
- Verbal aggression attacks the self-concept of others rather than attacking an issue.
- Intimate partner violence is pervasive with male and female victims.
- Know your partner’s beliefs about the acceptability of aggression and violence.
- There are several ways individuals can attempt to diffuse and downplay the effects of the dark side of interpersonal communication. First, people can learn how to communicate anger effectively. Second, people can develop an affirming communicator style. Lastly, people can learn how to be mindful of their own communicative behavior.
- Relational aggression results in hurt and lowered self-esteem. Design a plan to help a child who may experience or enact relational aggression.
- Verbal aggression is a negative form of communication in which the self-concept of another is attacked. Describe a situation in which you engaged in verbal aggression. How will you avoid verbal aggression in future interactions? If you are the target of verbal aggression, how will you approach the perpetrator of this behavior?
- Once entering the workplace, you may become a manager of people, or you may already manage people. How will you help your colleagues and subordinates avoid bullying? If you discover that bullying has occurred, what will you do to correct the situation?