HEALTHY LIVING

The Scientific Reason Why We Hurt The Ones We Love Most

06/26/2014 11:52 EDT | Updated 06/26/2014 11:59 EDT
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The people we know and love the most are the same people we're most awful to in word and deed -- and vice versa.

That’s the takeaway of three decades’ worth of aggression research, distilled and published in a new review in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

"The people who are likely to cause us harm of any sort are likely going to be people we know," review author Deborah South Richardson, a psychology professor at Georgia Regents University, explained to The Huffington Post. "It's not the strangers we need to fear."

Richardson, who calls the phenomenon "everyday aggression,” has been researching interpersonal aggression since 1974. She, and other researchers like her, focus on defining aggression based on someone's intent, and not on whether an aggressive action actually ends up hurting someone. "Whether or not you actually caused harm isn't the critical issue," Richardson explained. "It's that you intended to. If I aim my gun and shoot at you but miss, my intention was still aggressive."

However, she said the field can be difficult to study because of limits to what people admit to themselves — and aloud to researchers. "One of the challenges for even defining and studying aggression is asking how you look in someone's head to figure out what they intended to do," Richardson said. "We ourselves aren't always conscious of what we intend to do."

What else is known about aggression, based on what has been studied on the topic? We highlighted a few of the other main findings from Richardson’s review:

  • We're more likely to be aggressive to the people we know and love the most -- not strangers. Whether that’s because we spend the most time with them, or because our relationships with them are more significant, is still unknown, Richardson said.

  • One of the basic types of aggression is direct aggression. This involves yelling, hitting, confrontations and hurtful actions and words. Men are more likely than women to use this kind of aggression, including sexual aggression.

  • The other basic type of aggression is nondirect aggression, which means hurting without a confrontation. There are two types of nondirect aggression: indirect, which is hurting someone through something or someone else, and passive, which is hurting someone by not doing something.

  • Examples of indirect aggression include gossip, spreading rumors or destroying someone's favorite possession. Men and women both use indirect aggression equally, and they both use it more than direct aggression.

  • People are also more likely to use indirect aggression if they're connected to their friends in dense networks -- in other words, when friends all know each other, they can (perhaps unwittingly) carry out hurtful deeds on behalf of others more easily.

  • Passive aggression can include things like ignoring phone calls, giving someone the silent treatment or showing up late to an event.

  • Significant others and friends are more likely to receive the brunt of a person’s anger, according to a study among college students. However, the students were more likely to use direct aggression toward siblings and significant others. Richardson speculated that people might feel the freedom to be directly aggressive to their siblings precisely because their sibling relationship is so strong -- not weak, as some might assume. "Direct aggression with siblings, either verbal or physical, might be a safety issue," Richardson said. "As in, I can confront my sibling, and I'm safe when I do it. I don't need to be indirect. I don't need to be passive. My sibling will always be my sibling." She guessed a similar dynamic of familiarity can apply to romantic partners, too.

  • Friends are more likely to be targets of nondirect aggression -- either indirect or passive aggression. "Both of those are non-confrontational, and therefore they're very deniable," said Richardson. "I could say, 'Oh, I didn't mean to hurt you!'"

  • Aggressive people can be genuinely confused about the motivations behind their aggressive actions. "Some of our aggressive behavior is not conscious,” said Richardson. "People don't really say to themselves, 'I'm really annoyed at this person so now I'm going to spread rumors about them.'" Researchers can only ask study participants about aggressive behaviors they're conscious of -- thus excluding all possible non-conscious acts of aggression, Richardson explained.

  • Aggression is often confused with assertiveness. Assertiveness is about expressing your needs or concerns, but aggression involves the intent to actually hurt someone. To Richardson, there is no "healthy" level of aggression, except perhaps to use it situationally to protect yourself if someone is trying to hurt you physically. "If we define aggression as behavior intended to harm another living being, it's hard to think there's a healthy level of aggression," Richardson said. "Psychologists encourage people to confront and deal effectively with issues, but we don't encourage them to do it aggressively."

  • We still don't understand exactly how harmful aggression is to both the targets and the people who express it. "If you're constantly having to deal with someone who refuses to engage with you, what is the potential harm to you?" Richardson asked. "What is the possible harm to our relationship?"