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The Science Behind Why People Are Unkind to Those They Love

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Dec 18, 2021

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Image Credit: Getty Images/Pratik Bhide for The Swaddle

Let’s talk about love.

Not only the romantic kind — but also familial, platonic, self-love. Irrespective of the permutations, there remains one thing in common: we hurt the people we love most, as the aphorism goes.

I’m not big on aphorisms, but this one carries some anecdotal and scientific truths. In 2014, a researcher reviewed 30 years’ worth of research related to aggression in relationships and coined the term “everyday aggression” to explain the proclivity to hurt those in close relationships. “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 (now Augusta University), told the Huffington Post. Richardson’s takeaway was unequivocal in its mandate: “It’s not the strangers we need to fear.”

It feels like an unsaid rule in any close relationship: people will take their frustration out on those around them. Everyday aggression is a lens to understand the spectrum of hurt we can cause people. One clarification to be made at this stage: only behavior that carries the “intent” to harm someone is classified as aggression. The intention to actively cause distress to someone is key here. For instance, accidentally missing someone’s message in the sea of work-related ones is not the same as deliberately ignoring someone’s text.

If aggression is characterized by the “intent” to hurt another, there can be no “healthy aggression.” We are different in front of different people — to my friend from college, I’m “fun,” empathetic, even lovely. To my sister, I am best described as mercurial — for it is in the confines of close comfort that people present the most intimate and vulnerable versions of themselves.

The lens of everyday aggression further examines the different degrees of hostile behavior. There’s direct aggression — you know, yelling, confrontations, hurtful actions. According to Richardson’s study, reviewing literature conducted on heterosexual individuals, men are more likely than women to use this kind of aggression, which includes sexual aggression. This form of aggression is likely to play out between siblings, family members, partners. This almost feels intuitive. “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.

But the idea is people feel more at liberty to be overly aggressive with people we love the most (or those who love us) — like snapping at your mother who calls to check-in or arguing with a spouse who forgot to pick up laundry. Any minor annoyance may open the gateways to endless complaining about related and unrelated issues.

On the contrary, non-direct aggression can be both — indirect (like spreading gossip or rumors) and passive (not doing anything, like not taking someone’s call). The distinction between direct and non-direct is almost evident: there is a lack of confrontation.

What’s interesting about this research is it lays out the many ways in which aggression and hostile behavior can play out in any emotional relationship.


Related on The Swaddle:

What Happy Relationships Look Like, According to Research


“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.” A similar equation of familiarity may apply to romantic partners or close friends too. Think of this as the trust and safety paradox — “the more intimacy, love, and trust is developed between two partners, the more freedom you feel to just be yourself and not censor your words and actions,” as a blog noted.

On the other hand, why acquaintances, casual friends, or colleagues get off the hook is because we subject them to “non-direct aggression.” These are non-confrontational, deniable actions; say ignoring someone’s text or canceling a plan. It’s easy to get off with “I didn’t mean to hurt you” or a simple “sorry” because the stakes are low on both ends.

Also, the freedom — to take them for granted and be vile without thinking of the consequences — is missing. This may be a very instinctive argument, but it supplements our attitudes towards hostile emotions and how we express them. People may be kinder to a colleague who reaches out for emotional support, than to a partner.

Moreover, “letting it all hang out at home may mean you have just enough play-nice resources in stock for your irritating co-worker, the maskless fool on the subway, or a means-well relative at a family gathering,” Liz Krieger wrote in The Cut. In other words, people tend to save their emotional reserves for the outer circle. The irony cuts sharp as a knife.

Of course, why we choose to hurt someone is layered in multiple emotional reasons. It may be because of emotional baggage, the desire to assert control or independence, to test boundaries, or simply, because people may just expect a lot from the other. Some may have a fear of intimacy, due to cultural upbringing, or because of living through traumatic or abusive relationships. Excessive shame, too, can cause people to act in self-destructive ways (i.e., lie, cheat, betray, shout), as ScienceDirect explained.

An interesting prism to assess people’s behavior and intimate actions also comes in the form of “attachment theory.” How people behave or express their emotions depends on how their relationship was with one of their caregivers (most likely a parent). For example, if a parent is dismissive or angry when their child is upset, this leads them to believe their feelings are negative and will be punished. “The child eventually learns that the easiest way to deal with emotions is to not feel them — so they are effectively acting to regulate their parent’s feelings, rather than the other way around,” a blog explained. How secure or insecure people feel, or how “for granted” people take others, depends on the initial relationships people develop as children.

“This whole dynamic is rather normal,” said Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist. “It’s all a weird side effect of what happens when you cultivate safety and intimacy and love — there’s less vigilance and self-monitoring, so we often end up doing or saying things we don’t love.” Women may sometimes feel the aggression with more intensity, mostly “because they so often are in the primary-caregiver role and then they find themselves worn out just when their partner might be looking for connection or intimacy,” Solomon added.

But now that we know we’re bound to hurt people we care for the most, will it actually change individual behavior? Mindfulness, greater empathy (to the people you love and to yourself), and kindness may be small steps.

Because when we talk about love, we also need to talk about flaws, about all those warts and all that may make us less-than-perfect.

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Written By Saumya Kalia

Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.

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