“He could have just told me he didn’t want to be together,” Wren says to Lily for what seems like the millionth time. “Instead, he cheated on me for months! Why not just break up with me?” Wren and Lily have unpacked her break up with her ex-boyfriend, Devon, many times, but Wren can’t seem to understand why Devon went through the trouble of concealing his infidelity instead of ending their relationship and being with his new partner publicly. “I still think he thought you wouldn’t catch him,” Lily comments; “That way he could still have the best of both worlds.” Wren understands Lily’s point of view but still finds it hard to believe that Devon would want to hide his feelings from her. Didn’t he respect her enough to be honest with her? If he felt like something was missing, why didn’t he feel like he could tell her about it? She seems to have more questions than answers the more she thinks about it. Lily tries to be supportive while Wren processes Devon’s infidelity, and she knows that it may be a while before Wren is ready to move on and trust a romantic partner again, so she is doing her best to be patient and gentle while her friend heals.
What is the “dark side” of relational communication?
If you’ve ever known someone in Wren’s shoes—or been there yourself—it can be really difficult to make sense of infidelity. Why would someone cheat on their partner if it can hurt all parties involved? There are plenty of other relational behaviors that fall under the umbrella of “dark side” communication tactics, including bullying, complaining, and keeping secrets. In short, dark side communication includes any type of communication that can be destructive or dysfunctional when it is used in certain ways or quantities (Cupach & Spitzberg, 1994). Thus, exploring dark side communication is about understanding thresholds; it invites us to ask questions like:
- What happens when we _______ too much? Too little?
- In what context (if any) is _______ appropriate?
- How might _______ be interpreted by my relational partner? By others?
- What are the consequences of _______? Can it be forgiven?
Ironically, dark side behaviors aren’t always bad. Sometimes, keeping something a secret or making a complaint can improve and strengthen a relationship when performed tactfully. Unfortunately, without being taught how to navigate dark side behaviors strategically, we often hurt each other even when our intentions are good. Because the dark side thrives in a gray area where context is key, it takes a lot of work to interpret all facets of a given situation. Following the work of dark side scholars such as Brian Spitzberg and William Cupach, this chapter introduces a number of dark side concepts and their potential outcomes, what to do when relationships become dangerous, and the role of forgiveness in preserving or ending relationships.
Secrets are complicated and can often be confused with other relational tactics such as manipulation. Secrecy refers to instances in which an individual keeps information from others who are directly connected to the information in some fashion, while refers to instances in which people keep information to themselves that no one else has a right to know. Both secrecy and privacy are distinct from topic avoidance—refusal to have a conversation about a specific topic—and , which is the intentional manipulation of information to communicate something other than the truth for one’s own benefit.
Secrecy serves an important function in relationships, as it can help maintain social peace (e.g., “Don’t tell Stacy that Rachel already has that book she got her as a gift—it’s better if she doesn’t know”), but it can also be used to maintain reputations or societal standing, even if that means that a false image is reinforced when the secret is kept (e.g., a politician might keep a marital affair a secret) (McDonald et al., 2019). When relational partners keep secrets from each other, the pressure created by keeping the secret can create a rift in the relationship and make them question whether they have rightfully placed trust in one another. Navigating privacy vs. secrecy can be tricky, but the benefits of disclosure and being open with your partner often outweigh the perceived benefits of keeping something to yourself; context is important, as is the reason that you keep a secret. If you fear that your partner may react aggressively to a disclosure, then there may be bigger relational concerns at hand (see 7.5).
Do you remember the last time you told someone a secret? How did you feel the last time a relational partner trusted you with a secret?
7.2 Hurt and Bullying
Sometimes close relational partners can hurt us, intentionally or not, and elicit a negative feeling about the situation at hand, the people involved, or past actions leading up to the present. A hurtful message can take several forms (Wrench et al., 2020): evaluation (e.g., “You’re not as good at singing as you think you are”), accusation (e.g., “You always mess up our vacation plans”), directives (e.g., “shut up”), informative statements (e.g., “I only invited you because my mom made me”), threats (e.g., “I’ll change the lock on the door”), or even sarcasm/jokes (e.g., “you’re so funny … not”). Hurtful messages can occur during arguments or launch new ones.
Our responses to hurt can matter greatly, as it can determine where the relationship will go following the delivery and/or receipt of hurtful messages. According to communication scholars Vangelisti and Crumley (1998), some respond to a hurtful message by acquiescing, or agreeing with/submitting to the communicator of the message. Sometimes, recipients of hurtful messages retaliate verbally by throwing a hurtful message back at the sender, or actively engage with the sender by requesting clarification (Vangelisti & Crumley, 1998). Alternatively, the recipient may take an invulnerable approach, which consists of laughing the message off or simply ignoring its delivery entirely (Vangelisti & Crumley, 1998). The approach one takes may depend on several factors, including but not limited to the relationship between the sender and receiver, the context and medium in which the message is delivered, whether there is an audience, and whether it has been said before.
Importantly, delivering a hurtful message is not always a bad move. In fact, hurt can be a catalyst for change—by launching a painful conversation, we create an opportunity to push for change and resolution that may even strengthen a relationship moving forward; further, tactfully contextualizing hurtful messages or buffering them with an explanation for why they have been communicated can drastically change their reception (see Caughlin et al., 2009). But, it is important to remember that any hurtful message delivered with the intent to cause harm will not set the tone for a positive or healing conversation. Generally, asking for clarification and trying to understand the situation may help to redirect the conversation toward a more helpful path, but some hurtful messages simply do not have the potential to be helpful.
When hurtful messages are delivered over and over with the intent to tear someone down, this pattern is called . Bullying—which can take place anywhere, including at school, at home, and at work—is incredibly harmful and can damage an individual’s social, mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing long-term (see Vanderbilt & Augustyn, 2010). Thus, in some cases an isolated incident in which a hurtful message is received may be something relational partners can recover and grow from; in other cases, even one hurtful message can send a relationship into dissolution. But in every case of bullying, hurtful messages delivered consistently across time are detrimental and do not positively serve the health of a relationship.
Can you recall a time when a comment hurt you? What about a time that you made a hurtful comment about someone else?
Consider the following contextual details:
- Did the hurtful comment seem intentional?
- Was this the first time the comment had been made, or had it been said before?
- If you could go back and handle the situation differently, would you? How so?
7.3 Complaints and Criticisms
Some types of dark side messages can be difficult to differentiate from one another. , or statements that represent one’s discontent with their partner’s attitude about a situation, a particular behavior, or personal features/characteristics, are somewhat distinct from , which are rooted in an expression of discontent within a power structure or evaluation setting, such as a teacher grading a student (Cupach, 2007). Like hurtful messages, complaints are not always bad, as they can launch important conversations that improve the quality of the relationship (e.g., “I don’t like when you speak to me that way because …”). Further, constructive criticisms can help us grow and become more mature relational partners. However, some complaints and criticisms can be especially hurtful. When weaponized, complaints can be used to poke at a partner’s insecurities or sore spots (e.g., “You’ll never be as good at that as my ex”). Generally, complaints and criticisms are only helpful when they are delivered in a considerate way and pertain to something that can actually be changed (e.g., “Leaving your dirty clothes on the floor makes it more difficult to keep up with laundry”). If the complaint or criticism is about something that cannot be changed, such as a remark about a physical feature or something that happened in the past, it just becomes hurtful and can make the relationship more turbulent.
- “You only got 3 out of 10 of the quiz questions correct.”
- “You never let me finish what I’m saying without talking over me.”
- “You chew so loudly at the dinner table.”
- “I don’t like when we make plans and then you bail on me.”
- “I’m tired of picking up after you.”
- “I wish you would pay more attention to me.”
- “My mom would never have allowed this behavior, but you do.”
- “Of course it’s not your fault because you can never be wrong!”
- “Angela told me you would act this way, but I expected better from you.”
- “Wow! I thought you were supposed to be an artist.”
Commonly referred to as “cheating” or “unfaithfulness,” refers to a breach of relational boundaries via the introduction of a third (or more) parties into an exclusive relationship emotionally, sexually, or affectionately without consent (Dillow et al., 2011). Infidelity can occur in-person and/or online and may range from flirty conversation to sneaky sexual encounters; infidelity is often hurtful because it is a breach of trust, but it can also have serious consequences beyond the emotional and psychological damage incurred, such as contracting STIs, extradyadic pregnancies, financial secrets, and more. Though infidelity is not always a deal-breaker, many relationships dissolve following a lapse in faithfulness regardless of the motive; commonly reported motives include boredom, attraction to another person, the thrill of taking risks, opportunity, unhappiness, and more (Brand et al., 2007). In some ways, even though it is painful, infidelity can be a sign that a relationship has run its course and that partners are no longer loyal to each other, meaning that a break up may be better for both partners in the long run. Though there are certainly healthier ways to handle a loss of interest (i.e., speaking directly to your partner), infidelity may seem like the only solution to partners who are not ready to disengage from their original partner and have not yet considered the harm that infidelity may cause to that person. In short, being open with your partner about your concerns and desires is a much better option.
7.5 Relational Abuse
, also known as “intimate partner violence” (IPV) or “domestic violence,” can take the form of any behavior that allows one partner to exercise power over another partner, physically or mentally, that causes damage to their self-esteem and/or their sense of physical or psychological safety. Relational abuse is dangerous and, unfortunately, commonly occurring in many unhealthy relationships. Anyone can be a perpetrator or victim of relational abuse, which may manifest as physical abuse (e.g., punching, hitting, choking), sexual abuse (e.g, sexual assault or rape), financial abuse (e.g., withholding someone’s funds from them), emotional abuse (e.g., verbal assault, intimidating, humiliating), stalking (e.g., following someone to their house, staking out their workplace), and more (Love is Respect, 2023).
Signs of relational abuse can include going through a relational partner’s private texts, emails, and call logs without permission to do so, keeping a partner away from other loved ones such as family or friends, and trying to control what a partner is doing; in any case where you feel unsafe, it is import to seek help immediately. If you suspect that you or someone you love is coping with relational abuse, you can reach the National Domestic Violence hotline via online chat or phone (call or text); local resources such as crisis centers or shelters may also be able to assist you or a loved one in making a safe plan to exit the relationally abusive situation.
Some dark side behaviors are inexcusable—such as abuse—and should result in the relationship coming to an end. Other dark side behaviors may be possible to forgive after they have been addressed, such as the keeping of a secret or the delivery of a hurtful message. But how do we go about forgiveness? is the act of agreeing to reconcile and move forward following the occurrence of a relational transgression; importantly, forgiveness does not excuse negative behaviors or necessitate that a relationship continues (Pereira et al., 2022). Rather, forgiveness allows one to release some of the tension created by unresolved conflict and take steps toward a more positive state of being (Pereira et al., 2022). It is commonly misunderstood that forgiveness must follow an apology, but forgiveness is possible even if a perpetrator has not apologized for their relational transgression. For perpetrators who receive forgiveness, guilt and other negative feelings about the situation may lessen. However, even though forgiveness has many benefits for all parties, it can be difficult. According to Boon et al. (2022), we may find it easier to transition from a state of un-forgiveness into a state of forgiveness over time—as if moving across a spectrum—rather than jumping straight to having fully forgiven a perpetrator; we may also fail to recover the original nature of the relationship even when we are at peace with the incident and have practiced forgiveness. Still, it is often beneficial to forgive even if things may never go back to the way they were before.
The dark side is an interesting, complicated, and necessary part of communication in our relationships. The more one knows about it, the more one can begin to navigate tricky situations with skill. Importantly, healthy relationships are not devoid of turbulence or dark side behaviors. However, being able to spot when a line has been crossed or something has to change is critical to our holistic relational wellbeing over time.
If you or someone you know needed help getting out of an abusive relationship or domestic violence situation, do you know who to call? Take a minute to look up local, regional, and national resources in your area.
Think of a time that you encountered one of these dark side behaviors; how did it impact your impression of the person performing the behavior?
The Chapter 7 Mixtape
Bonnie Tyler – “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
Pat Benatar – “Love is a Battlefield”
Rick Springfield – “Jessie’s Girl”
Joan Armatrading – “The Weakness in Me”
Fleetwood Mac – “Little Lies”
Boon, S. D., Hojjat, M., Paulin, M., & Stackhouse, M. R. (2022). Between friends: Forgiveness, unforgiveness, and wrongdoing in same-sex friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 39(6), 1693-1716. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075211062272
Brand, R. J., Markey, C. M., Mills, A., & Hodges, S. D. (2007). Sex differences in self-reported infidelity and its correlates. Sex Roles, 57, 101-109. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-007-9221-5
Caughlin, J. P., Scott, A. M., & Miller, L. E. (2009). Conflict and hurt in close relationships. In L. Vangelisti (Ed.), Feeling hurt in close relationships (pp. 143-166). Cambridge University Press.
Cupach, B. (2007). “You’re bugging me!”: Complaints and criticism from a partner. In B. H. Spitzberg & W. R. Cupach (Eds.), The dark side of interpersonal communication (2 edition, pp. 143-168). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203936849
Cupach, W. R., & Spitzberg, B. H. (Eds.). (1994). The dark side of interpersonal communication. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Love is Respect. (2023). Types of abuse. National Domestic Violence Hotline. https://www.loveisrespect.org/resources/types-of-abuse/
McDonald, R. I., Salerno, J. M., Greenaway, K. H., & Slepian, M. L. (2020). Motivated secrecy: Politics, relationships, and regrets. Motivation Science, 6(1), 61. https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000139
Pereira, M. G., Fontes, L., Vilaça, M., Fincham, F., Costa, E., Machado, J. C., & Taysi, E. (2022). Communication, forgiveness and morbidity in young adults involved in a romantic relationship. International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy, 22(2), 165-175. http://hdl.handle.net/10400.14/37887
Vanderbilt, D., & Augustyn, M. (2010). The effects of bullying. Paediatrics and Child Health, 20(7), 315-320. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paed.2010.03.008
Vangelisti, A. L., & Crumley, L. P. (1998). Reactions to messages that hurt: The influence of relational contexts. Communications Monographs, 65(3), 173-196. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637759809376447
Wrench, J. S., Punyanunt-Carter, N. M., & Thweatt, K. S. (2020). Interpersonal communication: A mindful approach to relationships. Open SUNY.
keeping information to oneself that no one else has a right to know
the intentional manipulation of information to communicate something other than the truth for one’s own benefit
When hurtful messages are delivered over and over with the intent to tear someone down (can also include physical hurt)
statements that represent one’s discontent with their partner’s attitude about a situation, a particular behavior, or personal features/characteristics
statements that represent one’s discontent with the results of their evaluation of a situation or behavior; these exist within a power structure (one person is evaluating, the other is evaluated)
a breach of relational boundaries via the introduction of a third (or more) parties into an exclusive relationship emotionally, sexually, or affectionately without consent
ny behavior that allows one partner to exercise power over another partner, physically or mentally, that causes damage to their self-esteem and their sense of physical or psychological safety
the act of agreeing to reconcile and move forward following the occurrence of a relational transgression