Aggressive Behavior in Romantic Relationships

When we look up statistics on aggression in relationships, we will find staggering numbers that show just how prevalent this issue is. For instance, in 2013 the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that almost one third of women “have experienced physical and/ or sexual violence by their intimate partner” (Wihbey, 2014, p. 1). This situation happens not only in adult relationships, but also to teen couples. According to a 2011 study published by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 9% of high school students reported “being hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by a boyfriend or girlfriend” in the 12 months prior to being surveyed (CDC, 2014, p. 1). Furthermore, same-sex couples are not free from aggressive behavior. In the past few years, there has been an “increasing documentation of violence and abuse within same-sex relationships, ranging from physical behaviors such as hitting, slapping, scratching, and attacking with a weapon, to nonphysical behaviors such as threats, denigration, and sexual coercion” (Vangelisti and Perlman, 2006, p. 303). Based on the data above, we can see that aggressive tendency manifests itself in many different forms and to people from all sorts of background.

Aggressive tendency manifests itself in many different forms and to people from all sorts of background.

From the perspective of social psychology, aggression is defined as “any behavior that is intended to harm another person who does not want to be harmed” (Bushman and Huesmann, 2010, p. 833). Aggression can be observed through behaviors. In other words, we can tell if someone is being aggressive by studying his action or reaction towards others. Additionally, a behavior can be categorized as aggression only if it is intended, so when, say, someone loses control over his car and causes severe injury on a pedestrian, this behavior is not aggression. It is worth to note that aggression differs from violence. In social psychology, violence is “aggression that has extreme physical harm as its goal, such as injury or death” (Bushman and Huesmann, 2010, p. 833). Aggression has a wider scope and it does not always involve physical harm. We can say that violence is always aggressive in nature, but aggression is not always violent.

Another important concept related to aggression is the distinction between physical and verbal aggression. Physical aggression involves physically harming others, such as slapping or shooting them. Meanwhile, verbal aggression is “an attack on another’s self-concept with the intent or perceived intent to harm the other’s self-image” (Infante and Rancer as cited in Brandt and Pierce, 2000, p. 71). Again, harmful intention is a key aspect of verbal aggression. Therefore, it is different from arguments, which involves “presenting and defending positions on controversial issues while attacking the positions taken by others on the issues” (Infante and Rancer as cited in Brandt and Pierce, 2000, p. 71). In arguments, the target being attacked is someone else’s position on the issue. For sure, logical reasoning is needed in order to produce good arguments. Meanwhile, in the case of verbal aggression, the target is the other person himself. Physical and verbal aggressions may occur in different circumstances, and in this paper I would like to focus on aggression in romantic relationships.

To assess a problem, it is important to understand its causes. First of all, past experience may explain why people act aggressively towards their partner. Karakurt, Keiley and Posada (2013) in studying about intimate partner violence (IPV) wrote that “many violent individuals have witnessed inter-parental aggression as children or have been the recipient of parental aggression” (p. 562). From these childhood experiences, they learn how adults in their household react to a problem. “When children or youth observe violence between parents, they learn that violence is an acceptable or effective means for resolving conflicts with family members” (Ehrensaft et al. as cited in Karakurt, et al., 2013, p. 562). A research conducted on Australian newlywed couples further analyzed aggression performed by the newlyweds in relation to past experiences of father-to-mother and mother-to-father violence. It was found that those who were physically aggressive towards their partner had witnessed father-to-mother violence happened more frequently than mother-to-father violence in their childhood. The reason is “partner violence by men is more likely to cause injury and intimidation than partner violence by women” and “high-impact events are more likely to be recalled than low-impact events, which could result in greater recall of the higher impact father-perpetrated violence” (Halford, Kim, Farrugia, Lizzio and Wilson, 2010, p. 89).

Past experience may explain why people act aggressively towards their partner.

From the examples above, we can see that aggression is learned. The notion of aggression as a learned response is supported by social-learning theory. According to this theory, aggression “can be learned through observation or imitation, and the more often it is reinforced, the more likely it is to occur” (Atkinson and Hilgard, 2009, p. 422). However, there are some weaknesses of social learning as a factor of aggression. Jasinski claimed that “not everyone who has been abused or witnessed violence as a child becomes violent later in life” (as cited in Karakurt, et al., 2013, p. 562). To be clear, around 30% of those who live in a violent household during childhood become violent when they grow up (Karakurt, et al., 2013, p. 562). It means the majority of those who experience violence as a child do not grow to be violent individuals after all. It is also found that in some cases, people who have experienced or witnessed aggression continue to be victims in their relationship, as opposed to be the ones victimizing their partners. They are trapped in the cycle of abuse. Laura Berman (2013) from Northwestern University in Chicago describes this cycle, also called repetition compulsion, as a pattern in which “victims of trauma find themselves constantly reliving the abuse” (p. 1). She mentions an example where a girl is physically abused by her father. She has been in a romantic relationship several times, but she somehow always chooses partners who do not treat her well. This process may happen in the subconscious level. As Berman (2013) explains, this girl “wants to recreate her trauma and ‘fix’ the situation. She tries to be ‘good enough’ for her partners… to earn this partner’s love and hence rewrite history” (p. 1). Finding no resolution, the girl enters a new relationship, only to repeat the same cycle.

The second explanation to someone’s aggressive behavior in a romantic relationship is the lack of attachment security. Attachment security can be described as “the extent to which each person feels that the partner will be available and supportive in times of need” (Vangelisti and Perlman, 2006, p. 261). Based on several studies examining the correlation between attachment and relationship violence, it is drawn that “compared to men who are non-violent, men who are violent report significantly higher levels of relationship anxiety, fear of being abandoned in relationships, and more anxious attachments to their partners” (Karakurt, et al., 2013, p. 562). A low sense of security in a relationship also affects the extent of violence exerted towards someone’s partner. For instance, men who admitted committing more severe violence also reported that they had insecure attachment (Karakurt, et al., 2013, p. 563). A contrasting situation may happen if a couple has secure attachment. Securely attached partners can maintain stability in their relationship. During stressful situations, such as financial difficulty and problem in the workplace, they are less likely to channel their frustrations in forms of aggressive behavior. Vangelisti and Perlman (2006) wrote that “attachment security can contribute to maintenance of long-lasting relationship by assisting partners in coping effectively with life difficulties, personal changes, and developmental transitions. The quality of a long-lasting relationship can be jeopardized by a broad array of extrarelational stressors” (p. 264). We cannot, however, assume that all who are insecure in their relationship will at some point behave violently. As with the previous argument, “most individuals who have insecure attachment patterns do not become violent at all” (Karakurt, et al. 563).

A low sense of security in a relationship affects the extent of violence exerted towards someone’s partner.

There are many possibilities as to why people show aggressive behavior in romantic relationship. They may be victims of violent household who, through social learning, conclude that violence is an acceptable mean to solve problems. Another possibility is that their aggressive behavior is a result of insecure attachment. However, these do not always cause aggression. Most people manage to maintain a stable relationship despite growing up with violent parents or feeling insecure with their relationship. I would also like to add that in most of the examples, the research was conducted to investigate violence or physically aggressive behavior. Meanwhile, studies on verbally abusive relationship are underrepresented in this paper. The causes of physical aggression may likewise apply to verbal aggression. For example, people lacking attachment security might use verbally aggressive strategies as a weapon to hurt their partners. Indeed, further study is needed to present more comprehensive analysis of aggressive behavior.


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Brandt, Denise C., & Karen J. Pierce. (2000). When is verbal abuse serious? The impact of relationship variables on perceptions of severity. UW-La Crosse JUR, Vol. III, 71-78.

Bushman, B. J., & L. R. Huesmann. (2010). Aggression. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (pp. 833-863). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Understanding Teen Dating Violence [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved from

Halford, W. Kim, C. Farrugia, A. Lizzio, & K. Wilson. (2010). Relationship aggression, violence and self-regulation in Australian newlywed coupled. Australian Journal of Psychology, Vol. 62(2), 82-92.

Karakurt, G√ľnnur, M. Keiley, & G. Posada. (2013). Intimate relationship aggression in college couples: Family-of-origin violence, egalitarian attitude, attachment security. J Fam Viol (28), 561-575.

Vangelisti, Anita L. & Daniel Perlman. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wihbey, John. (2014, September 4). Domestic violence and abusive relationships: Research review. Journalist’s Resource. Retrieved from

This article was originally written as an assignment for the Introduction to Psychology class that I took at Waseda University, Japan.



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