Aggression by a Relationship Partner: Is it Consequential?

Being belittled, insulted, bullied, or harmed is particularly painful when it comes from a romantic partner. Perhaps surprisingly, being belittled or humiliated by a partner can be more difficult to overcome than being targeted physically. Moments of partner aggression typically do not lead to immediately ending a relationship, but they do pose a paradox: The person who should provide intimacy, security, and support, instead is being hurtful.

We study how and when people deny or justify partner aggression, which are common and even rational responses. Harmful effects of common aggression can become “invisible” and exist beyond a person’s awareness. For example, a person who feels committed may interpret a partner’s insults or even physical behavior as “joking around”, or become increasingly tolerant of harmful behavior. Most people remain committed even after a partner becomes aggressive because the partner repents and tries to restore a sense of love and connection.

Most people eventually experience or perpetrate common forms of partner aggression. There is no clear answer as to at what point aggression becomes too harmful. Strong commitment has many benefits but also may mask aggression-related harm. Eventually people restore their expectations for caring behavior, harmonize their personal and relational needs, and set out to “undo” the harmful effects of aggression.