People in relationships argue. This is quite normal, unless the disagreements are chronic and the intensity is potentially dangerous. Nevertheless, most consider a good, clean, verbal joust, in which both partners vent their true feelings, a healthier alternative to holding anger inside and suffering from it. It is also considered more productive to argue than to repress toxic feelings that will only explode at a later date. This latter scenario is often associated with domestic violence, and often can all but guarantee the demise of a relationship.
The purpose of this post is to examine a few of the more covert attacking styles partners may use to hurt one another—and to help you avoid them in your relationship. Unfortunately, many people have difficulty acknowledging their anger, and some haven’t a clue how they actually convey their dissatisfaction and disappointment to their mates. I find this especially true of those who have a strong need to see themselves as kind, gentle souls, incapable of doing harm; many of these people are uncomfortable owning their power.
Following are 5 such covert attacking styles. Do any sound familiar?
1) Picking, Nagging, and Chronic Criticizing.
- The partner who nags or picks at you on a chronic basis may be mad about one specific issue (e.g., you spend too much money) that you have repeatedly failed to remedy. In this case, there may be merit to their anger and you should consider the complaint in a good faith effort to stop the cycle. However, if you notice that you can never please your mate, then you have a bigger problem. You might even have a sadistic partner who takes pleasure in torturing you—consciously or unconsciously—via transferring past rage for a prior significant other (e.g., parent or previous spouse) onto you. Another possibility is that you have a miserable mate who needs to hold onto his/her “victim” by envisioning you as a persecutor. One way to differentiate the two is to measure the level of anger and hostility: The sadistic partner can be quite mean, and the punishment often doesn’t fit the crime. The victim often strikes while simultaneously crying and complaining about the injustice they have suffered at your hands. I sometimes refer to these individuals as “teddy bears with baseball bats.”
- If a person is uncomfortable owning a feeling or behavior, he/she may defend against this by projecting it onto you—as if you’re behaving or feeling the same way. Look out for people who keep telling you something is wrong with you, or that you’re doing something that they don’t like. They may be guilty of the very things they are attributing to you. For example, if your partner is always suspicious of you cheating, and you’re not …
3) Kicking When Your Partner is Down.
- I can’t tell you how many people initiate a split when their partners are most vulnerable—it’s as if the initiator is accenting a retaliatory point. The worst of it, however, is that many of the attackers don’t seem to have a clue how sadistic this behavior is. For example, people often end relationships on holidays or at a celebratory time (e.g., birthdays). I’ve experienced many who have started fights with sick partners while in hospital rooms. I know some of these people are expressing anxiety, but others are driving home a point … with force.
4) Engaging Others in the Attack.
- I would think it’s enough to hurt one’s partner mano a mano, without enlisting friends, family, or even children in the process. There are numerous examples of those who try to poison others against their partners, often resulting in senseless losses. Why? Many of these people use old-fashioned competition as a weapon of attack, motivated by goals like, “I’ll end up with more friends than he will.” Another possibility is the “gang” attack: “If we all jump on her we’ll crush her.” For some, the more people on their side, the less responsibility they have to take: “If all these people see my point of view, I can’t be wrong.” And one of my favorites: “I want to leave her with nothing.” Ugh!
5) The Sneak Attack.
- The passive-aggressive individual is one who expresses anger covertly—often a very effective technique. I refer to these individuals as “snipers.” The beauty of this style is that, as the target, you don’t know when you’re going to get hit, or from which direction. Often the passive-aggressive attacker is in such denial that he/she doesn’t even know when the bomb will detonate. I’ve found that no matter how hard you try to defend against this character, they’re usually too creative to predict. For example, if your boyfriend is upset with your spending habits, he may refuse to take you to a doctor’s appointment. What? Go figure.
Some of the attacking styles I’ve mentioned are a bit offbeat; most people just openly blast or embarrass one another. Nevertheless, they can be quite effective and potentially devastating to a partner and a relationship.
Are they sometimes merited? How much responsibility does the non-initiating partner need to take for the relationship dynamic? And what if both partners employ these styles? These are questions systemic thinkers grapple with.
Meanwhile, too many people remain in relationships in which one or more of the above styles predominate. If you’re one of these individuals, address it as soon as possible—couples therapy may be merited.