Physical Aggression: Is It Killing Your New Marriage?

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Many a newlywed has had the urge to get physically aggressive—by say smacking or shoving his or her spouse—in the heat of an argument. But how many people actually get physically aggressive? More than you might think. About 25 percent of 172 couples from Los Angeles who participated in a recent study on couples during their first five years of marriage admitted to getting physically aggressive with one another.

Erika Lawrence, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, wants to make clear that this kind of aggression is not the same as domestic violence or battering of a spouse, which she adds is a serious problem facing some couples but was not the subject of this research. What Lawrence discovered in this study was a tendency on the part of newlyweds to let their emotions get the best of them—and use their physical aggression in a less threatening, but equally risky, way.

Couples who applied for marriage licenses received a letter inviting them to participate in this study. After three months of marriage, Lawrence had the couples fill in a questionnaire, interviewed each spouse separately from one another, and performed an activity that had them discussing certain topics with one another. Every year for the first five years of marriage, Lawrence would interview the couples to see how things were going. In 2007, the Journal of Family Psychology published the findings.

“One of the most surprising things was how many couples who are in love are hitting, pushing, and slapping each other,” says Lawrence. These are couples, she adds, who report that they are happy and do not fear for their safety. Both men and women engaged in the physical aggression. “There’s this assumption that if people are hitting each other, they are unhappy,” says Lawrence. “That’s not the case.”

Still, their behavior can have grave consequences. Physically aggressive couples are more likely to divorce. Lawrence chose to look at couples in their first five years of marriage because that’s the riskiest time. The motivation to research newlyweds was because about 40 percent of first marriages end in divorce, and two-thirds of second and third marriages end in divorce. Others are unhappy but stay together, says Lawrence. Her goal, therefore, was to determine how some happy couples get to miserable over the course of those first five years.

Even though the statistics sound grim, you and your spouse can be the ones to make it. Here are some of the tips Lawrence, who plans to create workshops for couples who want to improve their relationships, has for newlyweds who want to avoid physical aggression:

  1. Become cognizant of your attitudes and actions. “Be aware of how you’re behaving in the heat of the moment during an argument and realize that those behaviors have consequences,” says Lawrence.
  2. Take a break from an argument if you’re getting overheated, she adds. Her suggestions include going for a walk or doing something else away from your spouse to cool off. Lawrence calls this a do-over because you walk away for a bit and then return with a cooler head and discuss the topic—and the argument if necessary—again.
  3. Learn how to manage your emotions. Ideally, you had good role models—say your parents—who guided you in this department. But often it is harder than it sounds. It requires that you take note of your reactions to certain situations and try to control or change bad behavior. Controlling your temper is a good start. If you can’t manage your emotions on your own, you may need to seek professional help with a psychologist or counselor.
  4. Learn to manage your stress. Lawrence says that couples are more likely to get physically aggressive if they are feeling over-stressed and burdened. She suggests trying yoga or relaxation exercises to determine what can help you personally to alleviate stress.
  5. Correct bad behavior. If you end up being physically aggressive during an argument, you must calm down and discuss what happened with your spouse. Together, you should try to figure out why this happened and what you need to do differently to prevent it from happening again.