Anger Management: Facts About Relationship Aggression

The great majority of relationship aggression, sometimes known as domestic violence or intimate partner abuse, involves high conflict interactions involving primarily verbal aggression.  According to the most recent, large-scale national survey on domestic violence conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year approximately 7.5 million women and 7.3 million men are victims of physical assaults at the hands of their partner.  Physical forms of relationship aggression occur in about 15% – 20% of relationships, and typically consist of infrequent pushing, grabbing, and throwing things, resulting in no or minor physical injuries.

The most serious type of relationship aggression, known as battering, is typically chronic, involving more severe physical assaults leading to physical injury, and usually accompanied by high and frequent rates of emotional abuse and attempts to dominate and control the partner. Individuals who are controlling of their partners are much more likely to also be physically assaultive.  Batterers can be either male or female, but women are more likely than men to suffer serious physical injuries.

In about 50% – 60% of relationships where there has been some form of physical aggression, both partners are violent. Men and women assault one another and strike the first blow at approximately equal rates, and are motivated for the same reasons – for example, to control, to express frustration, in self-defense, or in retaliation for something their partner did.

Non-physical forms of relationship aggression are much more prevalent.  According to the 2012 literature review by Carney and Barner, 40% of women and 32% of men have perpetrated expressive abuse (e.g., name-calling, ridiculing; sometimes out of anger and in response to provocations, and sometimes intended to degrade and humiliate the partner), while 41% of women and 43% of men have perpetrated coercive abuse (e.g., monitoring partner’s whereabouts, threatening; intended to control).

Many more relationships are characterized by “Dirty Fighting,” behaviors such as bringing up the past, not listening and blaming that are not strictly “abusive,” but undermine healthy communication and problem-solving.  The underlying motive when using these behaviors is to win the argument, rather than arrive at a mutually-agreed upon consensus.  The effect of these behaviors is to make the other person feel too confused, guilty, overwhelmed or worn out to effectively make their case, so that in your mind you “won.”

Examples of dirty fighting include “brown bagging,” – bombarding the other person with all the complaints you have been wanting to talk about, all at once;  “overgeneralizing,” making comments like, “You’re always late” and “I can never count on you,” and “cross-complaining” – for example, instead of taking responsibility for your actions, you complain about something your partner did.  All forms of relationship aggression are destructive, with physical as well as psychological consequences.