All relationships involve less than ideal behavior. You roll your eyes. Your keep scrolling while your partner is trying to talk to you. Unpleasant, suboptimal behavior is a real and unavoidable part of being in a long term relationship, though you can (and should) work to reduce it as much as possible.
But beyond daily annoyances, most relationships also involve some degree of more problematic behavior. In particular, psychological aggression is a common but very harmful form of relational behavior.
What is psychological aggression?
Psychological aggression can take a variety of forms. Some common ways psychological shows up in relationships include:
Threats. Common threats include that you will leave the relationship, that you will control your partner's access to children or money, or that you will cheat on them. Threats can be very explicit (i.e., "I'm going to take you for all you've got"), but they can also be more implied ("If you don't get on board, I don't know what I might have to do").
Emotional terrorism. Using very big displays of emotions to get what you want or to dominate the relationship. This can look like throwing a fit or a temper tantrum that doesn't ease up until you get your way. This can also look like being so jealous or insecure that it's extremely unpleasant for your partner to do something they want to do (like spend time with friends). Although you might associate emotional terrorism with being angry, it can also take the form of extreme sadness that takes over the relationship. Your emotions are so big that there is no room for your partner to have any emotions or needs of their own.
Character assassination. Being derogatory or insulting to your partner. This can involve the obvious, like calling them a bad name, but insults are often more subtle. "Yeah, you would do it that way," or "You're never going to finish that, I'll just have to do it myself" attack on your partner's character without using any overtly mean words.
Weaponizing sex. Withholding or demanding sex can be part of psychological aggression in intimate relationships. Withholding sex aggressively might sound like, "I'd sleep with you if you weren't such a [derogatory name]." Demanding sex might sound like, "if you loved me, you would want to have sex with me." The issue is not whether or not the couple has sex (and no one should have sex that they do not want or consent to), but the fact that sex is used as a means of control.
Weaponizing love. Similar to weaponizing sex, expressions of love can be withheld or demanded in a manner that is psychologically aggressive. Refusing to offer any reassurance to a partner during conflict or emphasizing that you cannot and will not express love to a committed partner can be a form of aggression. Similarly, insisting that your partner express love or reassurance is similarly aggressive.
Controlling conflict. Of course, dialogue is necessary to get through a conflict. However, when your partner is asking for space or a break and you are not letting them have that, this is a form of aggression. This can look like following them around, talking at them when they are clearly totally shut down, or repeating yourself over and over to get the answer you want.
Is Psychological Aggression A One Way Street?
Some relationships are aggressive or abusive in just one direction - one partner attacks the other. Especially if you feel controlled or afraid, the abuse in your relationship may a type called coercive control that is particularly serious. To understand more about whether abuse is mutual and to recognize coercive control, read more here.
For the majority of couples, aggressive behavior goes in both directions. It's not so simple as a victim and a perpetrator - you both instigate and participate in dynamics that are not healthy or okay.
Do You Underestimate Your Own Aggression?
When people are asked about their own psychologically aggressive behavior, they tend to say they do less messed up stuff than their partner does. Internally, this sounds like: "okay, yes I called him a name last week, but he did the same. AND he also slammed a door. His behavior is more extreme than mine." What's tricky is that your partner may be thinking the exact same thing - that your behavior was worse than theirs.
What's more, people tend to assume their own psychological aggression has less of an impact on their partner than their partner's psychological aggression does on them. Breaking this down, it might sound like, "Sure, I said some horrible things. But she knows I don't mean them and that I was just upset. What she said to me was really unforgivable though, because she knows how hurtful it is when she tears apart my parenting."
The math here doesn't add up. This tendency to focus on our own context and rationales while discounting the context and rationales of others is a classic mental stumbling block. When you focus on the harm others cause you, you are likely to miss some important ways you too have caused harm.
What Causes Psychological Aggression?
Couples I work with often share that the way they speak to each other during conflict is completely out of character. They would never talk this way to their children, their friends, or their colleagues. So why are they lashing out at each other in such a destructive, unacceptable way?
In my experience, there are a few common reasons why psychological aggression happens - and keeps happening.
You and your partner rapidly trigger each other in a fast chain of escalation. Your partner says something passive aggressive. You roll your eyes. They make a sarcastic comment. You say something insulting. They up the ante with a curse word. You level up with a raised voice and a threat. This speedy sequence is typical for couples who are psychologically aggressive with each other. Each action feels justified given your partner's behavior just one moment ago.
Your beliefs give you permission to act like this. This can be tricky to spot, but consider. Do you believe that if your partner says something rude to you, you have the right to say something rude back? Do you have thoughts like, "I need to defend myself" or "Ok, she's going there, I can go there too"? If so, the way you are thinking justifies your aggression. On some level, you think your behavior is acceptable, given the context, so you keep doing more of it.
You are waiting for your partner to stop first. Often couples in cycles of psychological aggression feel that they could easily stop - if only their partner stopped first. The reality is, both people need to commit to stopping. Not stopping because your partner hasn't stopped with their unacceptable behavior is not a good excuse, and it keeps the cycle going.
Psychological aggression is unfortunately very common, but that doesn't mean it is okay or that you can't stop. Recognizing that you are behaving in an aggressive - even abusive - way is a first step to changing the pattern. If you need help cooling down during conflict, I have created a Take a Break guide to help couples pause the destructive pattern.