Why do some men insult their partners?

Men who habitually insult their wives or girlfriends do so, somewhat paradoxically, as part of a broader strategy to prevent them from leaving for someone else – what evolutionary psychologists call ‘mate retention’.

Steve Stewart-Williams and colleagues asked 245 men (average age 29 years) to report how many times in the last month they had insulted their partner using one or more examples from a list of 47 insults, arranged into 4 categories: physical insults, insults about personal value or mental capacity (e.g. “I called my partner an idiot”), accusations of sexual infidelity, and derogating their value as a person (e.g. “I told my partner she will never amount to anything”).

The men were also asked to report their use of 104 mate-retention behaviours, such as whether they became jealous when their partner went out without them, and whether they checked up on where their partner said they would be at a given time.

The men who insulted their partners more also tended to engage in more mate-retention behaviours. A similar association was found in a second experiment in which a separate sample of 372 women were asked to say how often their partners insulted them, and how often they engaged in mate-retention behaviours. The researchers said insults might serve a mate-retention function, by making a “woman feel that she cannot secure a better partner, with the result that she is less likely to defect from the relationship.”

Past research has shown that men who engage in mate-retention behaviours are more likely to be violent towards their partners. This study appears to support that research by showing that such men are also more likely to use what might be considered verbal violence.

The researchers said that future research should also focus on the extent of women’s use of partner-directed insults and the function they serve.

McKibbin, W.F., Goetz, A.T, Shackelford, T.K., Schipper, L.D., Starratt, V.G. & Stewart-Williams, S. (2007). Why do men insult their intimate partners? Personality and Individual Differences, 231-241.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to related Digest item.

16 thoughts on “Why do some men insult their partners?”

  1. It would be more interesting to see all the insults and all the MRB’s used in this study. The ones shown here seem pretty jerky, and so it is little surprise that insecure men mentally and emotionally abuse women to keep them around.

  2. However, it is still important to understand wider socio-political and economic factors affecting mens’ attitudes towards women, as opposed to focus upon ‘men’ as the source of the problem.Mauro URL: <>http://jspsciences.blogspot.com<>

  3. This seems to be the pretense of David Deangelo's (The proprietor of a product called Double Your Dating) method of attracting women.

  4. unfortunately, many men have been abused by their fathers, because dad though it would “make him a man” and he would “touch it out” and praise was out of the question so it is just passed on to women who stand for the abuse while their self esteem heads down the toilet. this culture, the western seems to have respect for only one thing: money, not people of either gender

  5. This is a very great article. It would be even more interesting if it covered women's insults to their partners and mate retention behaviour – because of course mate retention is a two way street.

    1. Stop it. Why do so many people reduce these discussions into tit-for-tat?

      It’s rather childish to assume wives insult their husbands for the same reasons.

      As a first thought, I’d say women insult their mates because of resentment… he changed, he weakened, he put the family financial/emotional/physical jeopardy… stuff like that. Some women may insult for retention, but I guess that is far from the norm. For most who do, women most likely negatively mate retain through emotional guilt.

      See how tit-for-tat only changes the subject off a very real issue that deserves to be recognized without the childish sharing of blame?

  6. my husband insults me every day he calls me names he calls me stupid he calls me sloppy he tells me that he is better than me he always say that im sleeping with other ppl he is just crazy but i wish it would change

  7. he insults you because he dont want you to leave ,you know inside of you your beautiful and a kind person and he sees that ..dont worry sweety your special and he has the problem,and i know you proberly finds it hard to leave….but you well,maybe not tomorrow,or the next day but dont change who you are ok…your not the only one. BIG HUG TO YOU!

    1. I loved your kind reply. Although you wrote this many years ago; it holds true today.
      I married a guy that when under stress, has belittled me and my true mental illness, insecurities, and limitations. I think marriage was a mistake and I can’t, truly can’t, take care of myself. My father was I’ll for years & just passed away. My parents and much older sister did everything for me.
      I keep hoping at 42 my heart would just give out. I pray and hope for all the young girls & women out there to remain single and don’t get pregnant. You have to know yourself and be mature, get education, and a job before you ever share a life with another. Be smart; know your heart!

  8. I was recently dating a man who was abused by his alcoholic father growing up. The father was violent to the mother as well. After two or three months, he started to insult me making comments about my appearance and saying he was going to pick up younger women and this progressed steadily until I stopped returning his text messages and he got the hint. The weird thing is that until I read this article, I thought he wanted to end the relationship and was too afraid to do it himself so he made me do it. I thought his text messages after that to see how much he could get away with as some sick game. He was also very jealous and protective telling me that I went out too much and keeping tabs on me when I was with my girlfriends. The sad thing is that he is a great guy with a lot of problems due to his abusive upbringing. Was this just a way to keep me as a girlfriend?

    1. That’s not a great guy. He was sussing you out. You wouldn’t put up with it. But the next sucker who was also abused by her father (never got his love) will. It’s how these sick relationships work.

      Great guy? You were closer to falling into the sussing trap than you realize, I think.

  9. This is also common in men who were abused by their mothers too and/or if their mothers cheated on their fathers and had their manstresses' children. Men are also more likely to be abusive and controlling when they have mothers that cheat on their fathers.

  10. This cannot possibly be true. I’ve been convinced by the MRA rhetoric (as seen all over the internet for 10+ years, ramping up to a roaring cacophony in most recent years) that all wives are shrill and abusive, and all husbands are virtuous givers, put upon and walked all over as they hold the wife’s purse and champion her in every way “because society teaches little boys that girls are to be worshiped”.

    ALL just so that one day she will decide to arbitrarily leave him, take all his money, convince everyone she is his victim, and keep his kids away from him… The kids he never wanted because she trapped him… But but now he wants to see them but she won’t let him… And did I mention he never wanted them? He asked she abort but men have no say and she pinned them on him to steal his wages… But he wants to see them… Hes a proud father… but men naturally want to “go their own way” and kids are not what men want, it’s what women trick men into, preventing them from inventing the next light bulb … But he wants custody as a proud father…And didn’t want them…. ping pong ping pong ping pong…

    Right? They wouldn’t be lying and casting out these wide net insults to make women fight harder to prove “I’m not like that. Please approve of me!” Husbands insult their wives? Ha ha! Ignore all comedy shows you’ve ever seen and be live me that it doesn’t happen. That is a lie perpetrated by the feminazis who’ve somehow existed even 5000 years ago to make all these accusations work…

    (This article just answered so many questions about the hateful rise of anti woman propaganda on the internet and their sycophantic women who agree wholeheartedly how their own entire gender is evil… except for themselves of course.)

Comments are closed.