The Hidden Dangers of Psychological Aggression

The hidden dangers of psychological aggression

Examining psychological aggression

Psychological aggression is the most common type of aggression in intimate relationships. (Shorey, Cornelius & Bell, 2008). In a study done by Neufeld, McNamara, and Ertil (1999) found that psychological aggression occurred to over 90% of their sample of college women at some point in their lives from their respective intimate partners. Other types of aggression that plague relationships include physical aggression, relational aggression and emotional aggression. While relational aggression refers to behaviours which harm one’s relationships with others (such as isolating someone from a friend group) and emotional aggression refers to aggression that is done on impulse and as a result of negative emotions (such as yelling at someone during a heated argument), psychological aggression is different in that it is more directed at bringing down the victim’s self-worth. It refers to verbal and behaviour acts that belittle and intimidate victims (Follingstad, Coyne & Gambone, 2005). These are often done through ridiculing, threatening and isolating the victim, making the victim feel inadequate.

For instance, ‘gaslighting’ is a form of psychological manipulation of the other partner to doubt their own reality. Physical aggression might first come to mind when thinking about ‘aggression’ or abusive relationships. News outlets often report on physical abuse in relationships, along with pictures of victims covered in bruises and scars. What most readers might be unable to recognize is that psychological aggression can be just as dangerous or even more debilitating than physical aggression. Unlike physical aggression, psychological aggression is subtle, harder to detect and is usually precedent to physical aggression in a relationship. Which makes it even more important to be able to recognise early signs of psychological aggression and its repercussions before they escalate in severity. You may find out more about gaslighting as a form of psychological aggression here.

A study by Lawrence, Yoon, Langer & Ro (2009) showed that the repercussions of psychological aggression are equal to or may even well exceed that of physical aggression. This study aims to investigate the nature of psychological aggression in newlyweds and its impact on each spouse’s mental health.

A total of 103 pairs of newlyweds were assessed four times, over the span of their first 3 years of marriage. They were evaluated on measures of psychological and physical victimization, and depressive and anxiety symptoms.


Psychological aggression starts early

Results of the study showed that approximately 80% of couples engage in psychological aggression at every of the four time points. The most common psychologically aggressive act employed by both spouses were hostile withdrawal tactics, such as refusing to talk about a problem. Even early into marriage, psychological aggression is present and prevalent across these couples. Results of the study also showed that psychological aggression tends to be bidirectional. Psychological aggression does not begin from either spouse but arises from the interaction between spouses; both spouses have a part to play in inciting and maintaining the psychological aggression directed at one another.

Psychological aggression is more prevalent than physical aggression in relationships

Psychological aggression is not exclusive to physically abusive relationships alone. Many of the couples assessed in this study were not concurrently physically aggressive and yet, engaged in acts of psychological aggression. This suggests that psychological aggression is more commonly found in relationships than physical aggression and can exist independently of physical abuse.

Psychological aggression increases likelihood of depression and anxiety

With regard to comparing the impact of psychological and physical aggression, the results reveal that increased psychological victimization is associated with increases in both depressive and anxiety symptoms for both spouses. However, being a victim of physical aggression is neither associated with depressive nor anxiety symptoms, after the effects of psychological victimization is controlled for. This could also be partly due to the non-clinical sample studied in this research. Psychological aggression is hence unique in its association with individual depressive and anxiety symptoms, highlighting its detrimental consequences on a spouse’s mental well-being. This emphasises the detrimental effects of psychological aggression, more so than physical aggression, for individual psychopathology symptoms.

Examining the various subtypes of psychological aggression further, results showed that psychologically aggressive acts employed by husbands can predict wives’ depression and anxiety symptomology. Husbands’ denigration and hostile withdrawal predict wives’ depression and anxiety symptoms, and in addition, husbands’ dominance also predicts for wives’ anxiety symptoms. On the contrary, psychologically aggressive acts of wives do not predict for husbands’ depressive and anxiety symptoms. It is interesting to note the sex differences evident in the results - certain acts by the husband increases the likelihood of depressive and anxiety symptoms in wives but not when it is the other way around. Perhaps, this suggests that certain kinds of male psychological aggression are more damaging for female victims than female psychological aggression is to male victims.

Implications for understanding psychological aggression

There are a few important takeaways from this study:

1) Psychological aggression is not exclusive to physically abusive relationships

Albeit, this study focused primarily on newlyweds, it is telling that you do not have to be physically abusive to be psychologically abusive. Psychological aggression often precedes physical aggression and it is important to read the writing on the wall before a relationship turns physically abusive.

2) Psychological aggression is committed by both genders

The overall lack of sex differences suggests that psychological aggression is bidirectional and both husband and wife are equally guilty of being the aggressor and also, equally at risk of being the victim.

3) Psychological aggression is potentially more debilitating than physical aggression

Psychological aggression has a unique and pervasive influence on an individual’s psychopathological symptoms that is not found with victims of physical aggression. Sometimes, abusive relationships do not have to be physical. Mentally and emotionally, psychologically aggression can prove to be more damaging than physical aggression.

More often than not, victims of psychologically aggressive relationships are unaware that they are trapped in an abusive relationship and are in need of help. While most might look to physical signs of abuse, it is equally important to take note of red flags for emotional abuse which might be more detrimental in the long-run. Psychological aggression does not take place overnight, but runs its course over a period of time, slowly wearing the victim down mentally and emotionally.

Similarly, abusers are also in need of help as they are often victims of abuse themselves. The cycle of abuse continues if victims do not get the help they need and project their unhealthy cognitions and behaviour onto their next relationship partner. Indeed, more awareness should be raised regarding the potential dangers of psychological aggression, with repercussions that are more far fetching than physical aggression.

References Follingstad, D. R., Coyne, S., & Gambone, L. (2005). A representative measure of psychological aggression and its severity. Violence and victims, 20(1), 25.

Lawrence, E., Yoon, J., Langer, A., & Ro, E. (2009). Is psychological aggression as detrimental as physical aggression? The independent effects of psychological aggression on depression and anxiety symptoms. Violence and victims, 24(1), 20.

Neufeld, J., McNAMARA, J. R., & Ertl, M. (1999). Incidence and prevalence of dating partner abuse and its relationship to dating practices. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(2), 125-137.

Shorey, R. C., Cornelius, T. L., & Bell, K. M. (2008). A critical review of theoretical frameworks for dating violence: Comparing the dating and marital fields. Aggression and violent behavior, 13(3), 185-194.

Article written with Jasmine Kuah. Jasmine is a psychology undergraduate from the National University of Singapore (NUS). Jasmine is an aspiring clinical psychologist who wishes to help people improve their quality of life with better mental health. She is currently on internship with ImPossible Psychological Services under the supervision of senior clinical psychologist, Haikal.

Categories: Relationship
Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil

About the Author

Haikal received his Master degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS), under a full scholarship awarded by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). Before entering private practice, he has gained much experience in both hospital and social services settings.

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