Whether in politics, in the workplace, or on school playgrounds, bullying and aggression are relatively widespread in the United States. For instance, according to the Cyberbullying Research Center over a third of middle and high school students (circa 2016) have been victims of cyberbullying (Patchen, 2016). An even higher proportion of adults (41 per cent) in a Pew Research Center survey reported that they have been harassed online (Duggan, 2017). According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2017), on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States—more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year. Bullying and aggressive acts are common not only in the United States but elsewhere in the world as well.
Bullying is intentional, unwanted aggressive behavior that often humiliates a weaker person
Bullying is intentional, unwanted aggressive behavior that often humiliates a weaker person (for definitions see Center for Disease Control, 2018; Cornell, D., & Bandyopadhyay, 2010; Olweus, 2013). Bullying may be physical (e.g., kicking, hitting), emotional (e.g., name calling, verbal or written threats), or social (e.g., excluding or embarrassing someone, spreading rumors). The same person can be a perpetrator, a victim, or both. Social scientists have extensively studied bullying in youths, especially in school settings. However, it can also occur in adults and overlaps with social exclusion (Leary & Acosta, 2018) and some forms of intimate partner violence (IPV, Arriaga, Cobb, & Daly, 2018).
Intimate partner violence occurs when one partner in a close relationship aims to harm another using physically and/or emotionally aggressive behavior. In the context of personal relationships, such aggressive, violent behavior has been described by Michael Johnson (1995, 2006) as falling into three categories. The category that most people probably think of when they refer to violent or abusive behavior is called intimate terrorism (IT). IT tends to be severe, frequent, and one-sided. Individuals who inflict this type of violent behavior on their partner are doing so to maintain power and control in their relationship. The second category of intimate partner violence is labelled situational couple violence (SCV). In contrast to IT, SCV typically emerges as a part of heated conflicts or negative interactions. It varies in severity, may be initiated by one or both partners, and can be a one-time event or an ongoing pattern of behavior. The third category of IPV is violent resistance (VR). VR is aggressive behavior employed by victims of IT in an attempt to defend themselves or retaliate against a perpetrator. While VR can help victims escape aggressive behavior, it also can increase the risk that they will experience even more violence and aggression at the hands of their partner.
Because the outcomes of aggressive behavior can be severe and long-lasting, researchers have examined some of the processes that instigate bullying and violence. Eli Finkel (Finkel & Hall, 2018) has offered an I3 behavioral meta-model suggesting that aggression as well as other behaviors stem from three processes: Impellance, Instigation, and Inhibition. Impellance factors are predisposing conditions that create a readiness to respond aggressively (e.g., cultural norms, dispositional qualities such as anger or jealousy, poor social skills). Instigation factors are triggering circumstances or events (e.g., an argument, a partner’s infidelity, envy). Inhibition factors oppose or override the urge to aggress (e.g., cultural disapproval of intimate partner violence, dispositional self-control, relationship commitment). From Finkel’s perspective, bullying and IPV are most likely when the first two Is, impellance and instigation, are strong and inhibition is weak. Finkel’s perspective focuses on the perpetrator. We also know that with both aggression and bullying, victim factors can play a role. For instance students who are less popular, lower in self-esteem or have a minority sexual orientation are at elevated risk for being bullied (Katzer, Fetchenhauer, & Belschak, 2009).
One of the questions about intimate partner abuse is what percentage of victims remain in their relationships and what predicts their decisions. One study following women over two and a half years found that slightly over half stayed, with about 60 per cent of them experiencing continued abuse (Campbell, Miller, Cardwell, & Belknap, 1994). Caryl Rusbult’s classic investment model has been used to successfully predict who stays (Rusbult & Martz, 1995). According to that model, the more victims have invested in their relationship (e.g., the number of children), the more committed they are to their partner (e.g., their intention to remain), and the fewer the alternatives they have (e.g., poor economic circumstances on their own), the more likely victims are to stay. In this and other studies (Anderson & Saunders, 2003), commitment and poor economic circumstances associated with leaving have predicted staying.
Not surprisingly, staying in a relationship that involves physical, emotional, or social aggression has negative consequences (Coker et al., 2002). The consequences, like the aggression itself, may be physical, emotional, or social. For instance, while victims of physical aggression are at risk for physical injuries, health problems, and even death, they also tend to be emotionally distressed, depressed, and anxious. Victims of emotional aggression may not end up with physical injuries, but the ongoing stress and emotional pain they experience often leaves them with poor health and other physical symptoms. Like those who are physically abused, they are likely to suffer emotional distress, depression, and anxiety. Similarly, individuals who experience social aggression – who are ostracized or excluded from a social group – tend to report physical symptoms, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem (Leary & Acosta, 2018).
While the outlook for victims of bullying and aggression is bleak, it is noteworthy that a number of factors affect the degree to which victims experience negative outcomes. For instance, the severity of aggression and the length of time victims are abused both impact victims’ well-being. If the aggression is relatively mild (shoving as opposed to beating) and if it is a one-time incident, victims are less likely to experience lasting harm. The identity of the perpetrator also makes a difference. If the perpetrator is a stranger, the outcomes of aggression tend to be less destructive than if the perpetrator is someone close to the victim. It is also encouraging that bullying and partner abuse prevention efforts are showing positive results (Olweus & Limber, 2010; Polanin, Espelage, & Pigott, 2012; Whitaker et al., 2006). Finally, the reactions of significant others influence victims’ well-being and recovery. Victims who have friends and family members who believe their story and provide them with much needed support tend to do much better than those who do not.
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Campbell, J. C., Miller, P., Cardwell, M. M., & Belknap, R. A. (1994). Relationship status of battered women over time. Journal of Family Violence, 9(2), 99-111.
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