PREPARE/ENRICH: Relational Aggression

Sadly, some romantic relationships involve regular aggressive episodes and premarital couples are no exception to this possibility.  Indeed, some premarital couples' idealism and preoccupation with marriage plans may mask concerns about aggression. Many couples in this situation simply think that things will improve after they are married.

Premarital educators need to be vigilant about relational aggression in particular. It is distinct from verbal (eg. insults) and physical aggression (eg. hitting) that targets an individual and produces harm to that person. Relational aggression actually impacts on and primarily damages the relationship. Examples include actions designed to arouse jealousy (eg. flirting with others), using passive aggression when angry (eg. silent treatment) and threatening to break up to gain compliance. Relational aggression is sometimes far more subtle and hard to detect relative to verbal and physical aggression that initially targets and damages an individual.

A study of young adults' romantic relationships has revealed some interesting trends that may help us to understand why some individuals might be more prone to use relational aggression (Linder, Crick & Collins, 2002).  The researchers found that, regardless of gender, those that employed relational aggression were:

  • Low on being able to trust
  • High on being frustrated, jealous and clingy

The authors commented that individuals who use relational aggression in their relationships have a desire for high levels of closeness and exclusivity in their relationships. They perhaps cope with these feelings by using relational aggression in an attempt to control their partner and bring them closer.

Another finding was that, regardless of gender, those who were victims of relational aggression were:

  • High on self-reliance
  • Low in relationship security and sense of relationship quality

The authors suggested that victims of relational aggression are less likely to turn to their partner in times of need, and instead deal with their needs on their own. Additionally, individuals who are victimized by their romantic partners are less secure in these relationships and therefore are more likely to express low levels of trust and higher levels of qualities such as jealousy. This comment points to a profound paradox: The user of relational aggression lacks a strong sense of trust in their partner and needs more closeness with that partner, but their actions actually create lack of trust in the partner and the aggression repels them to the very opposite of what the user is seeking.

These results suggest a pattern that is worth identifying when it presents in any of our premarital couples. Look especially at the responses within the Communication and Conflict Resolution categories and be prepared to encourage couples to go beyond the specific questions and their answers, to open up and to share their underlying concerns and issues.

For example, within the Communication category, it is relevant to refusal to talk (the silent treatment) and the idea that a problem such as this will simply fade after marriage can be discussed when responses to the Marriage Expectations category are explored. This kind of discussion may lead into a broader discussion of concerns and issues that involve aspects of relational aggression.  In turn that exploration may lead to an awareness of the futility and damage associated with relational aggression and the need to find better ways of understanding, managing and meeting one another's relational needs.


Linder, J., Crick, N., & Collins, W. (2002). Relational aggression and victimization in young adults' romantic relationships: Associations with perception of parent, peer and romantic relationship quality. Social Development, 11, 69-86.

If you have any questions regarding working with couples and relational aggression or you simply need assistance setting up your couple, please call us on (02) 9520 4049.

At PREPARE/ENRICH Australia we are committed to providing quality resources for marriage preparation and relationship enrichment. Any questions, please contact us.

Strengthening Relationships Since 1979.

Contact Details:
PO Box 448
Sutherland, NSW 1499
ABN: 65 162 790 687
P: (02) 9520 4049



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