Does experiencing aggression in a relationship make us more vigilant against it – or more forgiving? New research published recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that when we want to keep our partner badly enough, we redefine the levels of aggression that we believe it is justifiable to endure.
Aggression can manifest in obvious violations such as controlling behaviours or physical violence, but also includes more common behaviours – denigrating a partner, or threatening to leave them. Drawing the line with these isn’t guided by societal absolute, but depends on individual discretion. Could that discretion be influenced by exposure to aggression?
Ximena Arriaga and her colleagues investigated this through research with students currently in a relationship. The students reported their experience of aggression in their own relationships, then responded to a list of specific aggressive behaviours, revealing in each case whether or not they would tolerate such behaviours. Examples on the list included a partner who “refused to talk about an issue with you” or “belittled you in front of others.”
Three separate studies involving more than a thousand participants showed that participants were more tolerant of aggressive behaviours if their current partner had already committed an act of aggression toward them. This can be explained in terms of the need to feel consistent and avoid dissonance between our actions and our beliefs about what is appropriate: if you’ve stayed in spite of what they’ve done, you’ll find it harder to see similar acts as a basis for leaving in the future.
A further longitudinal study (that surveyed participants repeatedly over several weeks) showed that initial levels of commitment to one’s current partner was also an important factor that was associated with people being more tolerant of later acts of aggression. At the start of the study, many participants had yet to experience aggression from their partner, but some had a different story to tell by the time of the final data collection eight or ten weeks later. Did these twenty individuals who had newly experienced aggression become more accepting of aggressive behaviours? Only some did: those who were strongly committed to their relationship. If you want it to succeed badly enough, you justify. And a further study showed this tendency to be very focused on making this relationship work: highly committed people were no more likely to tolerate (hypothetical) aggression when it was described as being directed towards a stranger, but became forgiving when they had to imagine it directed at them from their current partner.
These findings suggest that, at least in this sample, tolerance of aggressive partners is driven more by the present relationship than past history. Another intriguing detail from the longitudinal study was that it found that the participants’ stated tolerance to aggression at the start of the study was no predictor of who experienced aggression by its end, meaning that it gives no evidence of tolerant people gravitating to (or attracting) aggressors. And across the studies, aggression history prior to the current relationship wasn’t associated with current tolerance levels, once other factors were taken into account. Rather, the main driver seems to be the motivation to make the current relationship work, and seem workable, even if that means redrawing the lines that a loved one is not supposed to cross.
Postscript. Across almost every study, gender came out as a significant factor: the male participants were more tolerant and more willing to stay in relationships that involved aggressions. This was unexpected, but may reflect a reluctance within men to define their partners as aggressors and themselves in some sense as victims, as seen in low reporting rates of domestic violence against men.
Arriaga, X., Capezza, N., & Daly, C. (2015). Personal Standards for Judging Aggression by a Relationship Partner: How Much Aggression Is Too Much? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000035
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