Unwanted Communication, Aggression, and Abuse Research Paper

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Like many species, humans have an innate need to belong, to feel attached, to feel a sense of intimacy, and to achieve a sense of identification and communion with others. Such a need would have evolved to serve important adaptive survival values, including (a) organizing and acting in groups, (b) selecting and courting potential mates, and (c) maintaining family bonds in the process of raising children. In the larger context within which these processes of human communication evolved, two underlying functions emerged: power and affiliation. All acts of communication implicitly or explicitly seek to influence or respond to attempts to influence and seek affiliation or disaffiliation from others. In the process of influencing and being influenced, affiliating and disaffiliating with others, communication can become abusive. This research paper examines the various ways in which communication distorts or exploits basic human functioning. Specifically, this research paper reviews forms of communication that are typically unwanted in normal relationships, with special attention to processes of relationship communication that become obsessive, harassing, and threatening in their pursuit of intimacy.

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A few terms need to be clarified before proceeding. The term communicative aggression will be used to refer to messages that function to diminish a person’s preferred identity. When communicative aggression occurs over an extended period of time, it becomes a form of communicative abuse. Both the act or event of communicative aggression and its more extended pattern of use are typically encompassed by the term psychological abuse, which is commonly used in social psychology to refer to many of the communicative processes and messages that are the concern of this research paper.

When communication is employed in a campaign to achieve greater intimacy than the recipient of that attention prefers, it becomes a form of obsessive relational intrusion (ORI), which is a persistent pattern of unwanted harassment and violation of a person’s sense of symbolic or physical privacy. When this type of pursuit becomes threatening or elicits fear in the recipient or target of attentions, it becomes stalking. Not all stalking is a form of ORI, and not all ORI is a form of stalking. Some stalkers have no interest in developing an intimate relationship with the person being pursued, and some ORI is merely bothersome or frustrating rather than fear inducing. Nevertheless, research indicates that most stalking emerges from prior relationships, the majority of which were romantic in nature, and that most ORI is at least moderately threatening (see Cupach & Spitzberg, 2004; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007b).

Some time ago, Noam Chomsky demonstrated that although there are a finite number of words in a given language, there are an infinite number of sentences that can be created from those words. Consider the following sequence of creative additions: “You are crazy!” “You are crazy as a loon!” “You are crazy as a loon on drugs!” “You are crazy as a loon on drugs after a long migration!” “You are crazy as a loon on drugs after a long migration and constant pecking by siblings!” And the possibilities continue ad infinitum. So it is with communicative aggression and abuse. People may have a limited number of actions and words available in their repertoire of behaviors, but these actions and words permit an infinite number of ways of offending, exploiting, antagonizing, and hurting others. Thus, there is no way to entirely review all the ways in which communication can be used in aggressive, abusive, or unwanted ways, but it should be possible to identify core types of unwanted communication.

Interest in communicative aggression and abuse has spanned millennia, but as a scholarly topic, interest has been quite recent. In the first half of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud and other psychiatrists (e.g., Harry Stack Sullivan, Karen Horney) interested in the neuroses of everyday behavior as well as the deeper motives of human evil pursued such topics from primarily psychological perspectives. Émile Durkheim and other more sociologically minded scholars were more interested in how contemporary societal structures and processes could communicate alienation and create a sense of personal meaninglessness for the individual. By the second half of the 20th century, the scholarly landscape had broadened, with scholars such as Erich Fromm (1992) attempting to explain The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and Erving Goffman (1963) describing the social processes by which people created conditions of stigma for others. Scholars in the emerging field of social psychology were studying processes of coercion (Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority, 1983; Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, 2007), whereas clinical psychologists were beginning to view mental illness through the lens of disturbed communication (Jurgen Ruesch, Disturbed Communication, 1972; Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, Don Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes, 1967). It was out of this nexus that scholars in the field of communication began studying communication competence, which naturally requires attention to distortions and failures of communication.

In the latter decades of the 20th century, and now in the beginning of the 21st century, interest in the various ways in which communication can be aggressive and abusive is interdisciplinary, multimethodological, and vibrant. Active scholarly research programs have emerged in the study of a host of topics, including anger, bad conversations, betrayal, breaches of propriety, bullying, codependence, complaining and criticizing, cyber stalking, deception, deviance, disaffinity and distancing, discouragements, disrespect, double binds, embarrassment induction, gossiping, guilt induction, hurtful messages, incivility, indirect aggression, infidelity, Internet pathology, intimate violence, irritations, jealousy expression, jealousy induction, narcissism, negative affect expression, paradox, privacy violations, profanity, social hassles, social rejection and ostracism, revenge, secrecy, sexual aggression, sexual harassment, social stressors, strategic ambiguity, teasing, threats, unrequited love, and a host of other forms of interpersonal unpleasantness. Such work has been investigated under the terms of the dark side, aversive interpersonal behaviors, counterproductive behavior, inappropriate relationships, difficult relationships, problematic relationships, and just plain behaving badly (see Fox & Spector, 2005; Fritz & Omdahl, 2006; Goodwin & Cramer, 2002; Griffin & O’Leary-Kelly, 2004; Kirkpatrick, Duck, & Foley, 2006; Kowalski, 1997, 2001; Rancer & Avtgis, 2006; Spitzberg & Cupach, 1998, 2007a). The work and topics have been far too diverse, and the research still too much in its infancy, to identify organizing theories. There are, however, a number of theoretical themes that run through most of these lines of research.


The old saying that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me” appears to be in error. Research is beginning to reveal that when physical violence in intimate contexts is nonlethal, it tends to have less damaging effects on victims’quality of life than communicative aggression (Dailey, Lee, & Spitzberg, 2007). The need to belong, to establish a satisfactory identity, and the basic need for self-esteem are all strong psychological drives, but they are also almost entirely subjective and social in nature. That is, almost everything people value about their lives is defined by social interactions rather than objective achievements. Status, attractiveness, intimacy, family, power, freedom, and so forth are all deeply embedded in sociocultural conceptions of value. Achieving a well-paying executive job is important to one person, whereas working for a nonprofit organization helping people in need is important to another person. Achieving fame is important for one person, whereas working behind the scenes in relative obscurity better suits other persons. Such values are developed through a lifetime of interactions with others, through which the views and values of others are taken into account in establishing a personal sense of achievement. In this context, therefore, when someone is neglected, ignored, insulted, criticized, yelled at, or the target of another person’s communicative aggressions, the hurt can be more encompassing, more durable, and harder to ignore than a slap, push, shove, kick, or hit. People learn that bruises heal, but they have no first-aid kit for injuries to their egos. Society has never equipped people with simple treatments for being unloved, loved too much, or despised.

Just because communicative aggression and abuse may generally be more hurtful than physical violence, it is important not to diminish the importance of understanding both. Physical violence is a type of communication, and research indicates that when physical aggression occurs, verbal aggression almost always occurs with it (Dailey et al., 2007). The potential harms of physical violence are too often severe, including injuries and homicide. Substantial percentages of people in general, and college students in particular, experience both violence and communicative aggression in their relationships, and the effects of both are clearly harmful to many of those experiencing these forms of aggression (Coker, Smith, McKeown, & King, 2000; Cupach & Spitzberg, 2004). Communicative aggression may be a process that escalates to physical violence; reinforces physical violence; or in some relationships, substitutes for physical violence. If these processes of aggression, abuse, and unwanted communication are to be understood, an understanding of theory is in order.


Many theories of human communication began with an interest in describing, explaining, and prescribing ideal forms of communication. Since the 1920s, there has been interest in developing models and measures of human communication competence that would parallel theories and methods in intelligence. That is, if the intelligence quotient (IQ) can be conceptualized and reliably measured, then perhaps there is a similar form of social intelligence or traitlike ability to manage interpersonal relations satisfactorily. Models of emotional intelligence and multiple intelligences continue to interest scholars, educators, and organizational consultants alike. Throughout a century of attempting to conceptualize social and interpersonal competence, however, there were shades of interest in the darker side of social relations. Abnormal psychology, the sociology of deviance and conflict, and the study of failed rhetorical events and campaigns revealed an ongoing interest in the failures and fallibilities of competence. Theorists eventually began to change their questions from “Why does communication fail?” to “Is there something fundamental to human nature about the darker sides of communication in social relations?” By shifting the question from thinking of aggression and abuse as failures of a normally functional process to thinking of them as serving some form of essential functions in social relations, scholars began to ponder the role of the darker sides of human nature (e.g., Miller, 1999).

At least two theoretical premises emerge as the study of communicative aggression and abuse has progressed. First, aggression, abuse, and unwanted communication tend to reflect a disjunctive goal structure.All communicators have goals for their behavior, even though these goals may be more or less conscious, more or less important, more or less prioritized, and so on. Goals are the objectives or ends that are sought through behavior. When communicators interact with one another, they may have conjunctive (i.e., compatible) or disjunctive (i.e., incompatible) goals. In a situation of unrequited love, for example, a would-be lover seeks the reciprocal affection of another person. But the fact that the love is unrequited (i.e., unreciprocated) means that these two people are seeking incompatible ends of their interaction—one seeks love, the other seeks something else (e.g., to be left alone by the pursuer, to “just be friends,” etc.). When these communicators pattern their behavior toward these goals, it can be considered a type of structure. Thus, the pursuer will engage in patterns of behavior devoted to gaining the other person’s attention and affection (e.g., sending notes, gifts, e-mails, instant messages, etc.), and when the other person devotes behavior to avoiding or rejecting such attentions, these behavior patterns reveal a disjunctive structure. Although most theories of competent communication have emphasized the achievement of compatible goal states through communication, the study of conflict, aggression, and abuse have had to develop theories of incompatible goal structures and processes.

In examining the disjunctive nature of communicative aggression and unwanted communication, two somewhat distinct goal structures emerge. Communicative aggression often takes on the disjunctive goal of one person seeking to harm the other against the other’s preferences, whereas unwanted communication often takes on the disjunctive goal of one person seeking to elicit affection from the other person against the other person’s preferences. Yet aggressive communication can end up serving both goal situations. A rejected lover may use aggressive communication to try and motivate the other person to pay attention, to reconsider, to reevaluate the costs and benefits of returning to the relationship, and so on. In other cases, however, aggressive communication is primarily used to exact retribution, for revenge, or to displace the aggressor’s sense of frustration, anger, or rage.

A second premise to emerge from the study of aggression, abuse, and unwanted communication is that aggression is multiply determined. The traditional theoretical divide has been between nature and nurture. Theoretical approaches that explain aggression as a product of nature tend to attribute it to (a) evolution and genetics or (b) general personality disorders or traits.

Socio-evolutionary theories argue that across thousands of generations of human interaction, aggression became a type of behavior that in certain contexts provided some survival or mating advantage over competitors. Over time, those who could competently engage in forms of aggression would experience a differential advantage in passing their genes onto the next generation, and these behaviors and traits would become more “hardwired” in the subsequent generations. From this perspective, aggression is simply one of many tactics and dispositions that collectively comprise a repertoire of resources that humans may select and use as circumstances dictate. Those with broader repertoires, and with repertoires that included aggressive tactics, would have a survival advantage over those with smaller nonaggressive repertoires, and over time these repertoires would become part of the inherited predispositions of offspring.

Personality traits are dispositions or tendencies to perceive and behave in certain characteristic ways. Personality disorders represent maladjusted traits or dysfunctional organizations of a person’s development and perception. There are many approaches to personality, but most accept that there are certain traits that tend more toward aggressive or dependent tendencies, either one of which could be the source of communicative aggression or unwanted communication. Some people are simply more easily angered, more contentious or ill-tempered, more unstable in their mood, more insecure about how others view them, more desperate in their need for others’ approval, or more grandiose in their opinion of their own superiority to others. Such people are more sensitive to implicit or explicit criticism and more likely to strike out at others who they perceive as insulting, or persistently pursue relationships with people they perceive as important to their identity.

Nurture approaches tend to locate the source of aggression and unwanted communication in (a) childhood attachment experiences or (b) specific contexts that people experience. Aggression and unwanted communication are viewed as products of ongoing social experiences rather than the dispositions with which someone is born.

Attachment theories claim that the innate need for affection in infants can be responded to in various ways by caregivers. A caregiver who is consistent, generally available, and positively responsive to an infant will tend to reinforce a healthy expectation in the infant that social relations are sources of positive experience. In contrast, caregivers who are inconsistent, often unavailable, and sometimes negative or punishing in their reactions to an infant will tend to reinforce expectations that attachment figures cannot be relied on or may be unpleasant. These expectations form mental models, or schemas, which over time organize the developing child’s assumptions about social relations. Securely attached children tend to develop healthy and competent perspectives toward personal relationships, whereas insecurely attached children tend to become dismissive of relationships (i.e., liking oneself but not others and thus not being particularly interested in developing intimacy with others), fearful (i.e., liking neither oneself nor others and thus experiencing anxiety in social relations), or preoccupied (i.e., liking others but not oneself and thus desperately seeking intimacy with others). Insecurely attached persons are most likely to develop personal dispositions that devalue or aggress against others or that result in patterns of pursuit that may be unwanted by the other person.

Contextual theories tend to locate aggression and unwanted communication in the particular intersections of recent experiences. For example, interpersonal aggression is often a reaction to situational stresses or provocations, an outgrowth of escalating conflict with another person, or exaggerated by the consumption of alcohol or drugs. Celebrities receive more unwanted attention from fans in part because they are in more contexts in which others may fixate on or develop a sense of attachment to them. Counselors, doctors, nurses, and teachers may face a greater risk of being the target of unwanted affections by the nature of their work contexts, in which they are in a helping and high-status role in relation to large numbers of diverse people. Thus, aggression and unwanted communication may not reflect personal dispositions per se but merely greater exposure to factors and opportunities that increase the likelihood of experiencing these communicative processes.

Almost all theorists understand that communicative aggression, abuse, and unwanted communication are determined by many of these sources of nature and nurture. For example, communicative aggression is likely to emerge from a combination of personal dispositions and contextual factors. A dismissive attached person, with a genetic disposition to be more aggressive, and who is under a lot of stress at work or school, is more likely to respond to a conflict encounter with a partner with aggressive behavior than a securely attached person with more affiliative genetic dispositions and whose work and social life are going smoothly.

An example of a theory that incorporates multiple determinants of unwanted communication is the relational goal pursuit theory proposed by Cupach and Spitzberg (2004). In general, the effort one exerts in pursuing any particular goal is a function of how much one sees the goal as desirable and attainable. Goals that lack worth, require inordinate effort, or seem unachievable are usually abandoned in favor of alternative goals. According to relational goal pursuit theory, desired relationships represent one type of goal. Thus, people pursue particular relationships insofar as they are perceived to be valuable and attainable. If the cost or effort to obtain a relationship exceeds its value or if the relationship is perceived to be out of reach, then it is no longer pursued. Obsessive relational pursuers, however, persist in their pursuit of an unrealistic relational goal. This occurs because the relationship pursuer links the goal of having a particular relationship with other, more abstract and supremely important goals, such as self-worth and life satisfaction. In other words, the obsessive pursuer comes to believe that attainment of the relational goal is absolutely essential to the fulfillment of higher-order goals that cannot be abandoned or substituted. Statements such as “I can’t imagine life without you,” “I have to have you,” “You are the only one for me,” and “We were fated to be together” illustrate the linkage of a particular relational goal with higher-order goals. The obsessive pursuer thus exaggerates the value of the desired relationship and rationalizes that it is obtainable, even in the face of repeated rejection. This leads to persistent and excessive pursuit of the relational goal (i.e., escalated activities of flirtation, courtship, and attempts at establishing intimacy). When the desired person rejects such pursuit, it creates frustration and arousal, which fuel a process of uncontrollable obsessive thinking called rumination. The rejected wouldbe lover ruminates about the desired partner, the importance of the sought-after relationship, and the dire consequences of failing to achieve the relational goal. Paradoxically, these obsessive thoughts reinforce the importance of the relational goal and further motivate persistence in its pursuit. The ongoing frustration of the goal also develops complex pathways to ironic feelings of love and hate, desire and anger. Out of this ambivalent mix of emotions, would-be lovers often lose sight of normal boundaries of appropriate behavior and engage in a campaign of obsessive relational intrusion, in which both messages of abuse and messages of affection commingle.

Theories of communicative aggression tend to emphasize nature or nurture, individual or context. Scholars are recognizing increasingly that a full account of such unwanted forms of communication will have to draw from multiple theoretical perspectives and causes (Stith, Smith, Penn, Ward, & Tritt, 2004). There is nothing fundamentally incompatible between attachment theory and relational goal pursuit theory or socioevolutionary theory and personality theory. How communicative aggression is conceptualized, however, determines the methods selected for testing such theories.


Ethical concerns with communication and research prohibit efforts to study aggressive and unwanted communication by exposing people extensively to such harmful activities or by experimentally inducing them to engage in such activities toward others. Research consequently has tended to use less direct research methods. Most methods fall broadly into one of four categories: (1) qualitative/ interview, (2) records/artifact review, (3) quantitative self-report, and (4) meta-analysis.

Qualitative and interview methods engage in a process of asking relatively open-ended questions of people and permitting those people to construct their answers as they see fit. When applied to the study of aggression, these methods are often employed with people who are already understood as experienced in the process of aggression. For example, interviews with women at battered women’s shelters, with women seeking a protective order, with couples seeking marital counseling, or with men convicted of domestic violence would all exemplify these types of research methods. Given the broad-ranging types of responses resulting from such interviews, researchers have to engage in extensive processes of interpretation in order to bring coherence to the information. In this interpretive process, researchers may bring their own personal experiences to bear and may rely on any or all prior theories and research to identify the most relevant themes in the responses of the interviewees.

People often leave or provide information about themselves in various forms in their natural everyday activities. These artifacts often take the form of records of their information collected for another purpose. Studies of case records make use of information gathered for different reasons than the study at hand. For example, hospital records may be studied to see what kinds of injuries patients present when they enter emergency rooms, or police records might be studied to see what complainants report about their partner’s behavior. Such records offer valuable insights in part because they are recorded by trained professionals, but they often are also challenging because they tend not to record information in precisely the way the researcher would most prefer.

Quantitative self-report methods by far represent the most common social scientific approach to studying communicative aggression and abuse. In this method, a set of statements, or items, is developed, usually based on prior research, both quantitative and qualitative. These statements are presented to people who make judgments such as how often they have experienced or engaged in various behaviors (e.g., “I called my partner a dirty name,” “My partner criticized me for no reason,” etc.) or the extent to which they agree or disagree with a statement (e.g., “I am intolerant of criticism,” “My partner doesn’t respect me”). Because the response scales correspond to numbers (e.g., 1 = strongly disagree, 2 = mildly disagree, 3 = undecided, 4 = mildly agree, 5 = strongly agree), these items can be analyzed quantitatively, and the entire toolbox of statistical analyses can be used to identify which sets of items combine in ways that inform the researcher about the process being studied. Self-report methods permit not only the study of personality and personal characteristics but also perceptions of behavioral processes. Such reports, however, are subject to perceptual biases of the informant (e.g., downplaying one’s own antisocial behavior) and distortions that attend the retrospective recall of events.

After years of social scientific research has been conducted in a given topic area, it is often possible to conduct a meta-analysis, which is simply a way of combining research results across multiple studies. These multiple studies are typically conducted by many different researchers, investigating somewhat different research questions, using somewhat different questions or methods and different populations of people. For example, one researcher may ask respondents how often they “have been called persistently” by an ex-partner, whereas another researcher may ask how often respondents “were called and faxed constantly” by an ex-partner. The wording of these items in these two studies is different, but clearly they are getting at much the same type of persistent pursuit, so a meta-analysis might categorize the percentages of respondents who answered both as “persistent phoning/faxing” and be able to generate a more reliable estimate because the results of multiple studies were combined.


The applications of methods such as these have yielded valuable information about the processes of communicative aggression, abuse, and unwanted communication. Research has largely examined four types of questions: (1) What types of aggression occur, (2) to whom and to what extent, (3) with what effects, and (4) with what responses by those aggressed against?

What Types of Aggression Occur?

There have been hundreds of studies on the topic, but research has begun to develop more comprehensive approaches that stand a chance to address what types of communicative aggression occur. For example, using a combination of methods, psychologists have identified 17 microlevel typesofpsychologicalabuse:threats/intimidation,destabilizing the person’s perception of reality, isolation/monopolization, treatment as inferior, establishing power through refusals, verbal abuse/criticism, jealousy/suspicion, monitoring/ checking, rigid gender roles, control over personal behavior, withholding emotionally/physically, public embarrassment/humiliation, emotionally wounding behavior regarding infidelity, lying/deception, guilt induction/blaming, manipulation, and attacking a person’s looks/sexuality (Follingstad, Coyne, & Gambone, 2005). These types of aggression, in turn, were found to represent five more macrolevel types of abuse: threats to physical health (e.g., intimidate, harass), control of freedom (e.g., isolate, restrict movement), general destabilization (e.g., humiliate, criticism), domination/control (e.g., economic restriction, jealousy/ suspicion), and ineptitude (e.g., blackmail, role failure).

A second program of research by communication scholars (Dailey et al., 2007) developed an extensive list of potentially microlevel aggressive forms of communication, which they found clustered into 11 more macrolevel forms: verbal aggression (e.g., screams for no reason, offensive tone of voice), freedom restriction (e.g., checks up on me, invades my privacy), risk taking (e.g., openly flirts with others, engages in offensive or illegal acts), degrading dominance (e.g., forces me to do things, treats me like a personal servant), threatening valued resources (e.g., denies me money, threatens family or friends), isolation (e.g., isolates me from friends or family, turns my social network against me), humiliation (e.g., spreads stories about me, insults me in front of others), insecurity induction (e.g., threatens to have an affair, threatens to leave me), withdrawal (e.g., does not respond to my statements, withholds affection), name calling (e.g., uses profanity when referring to me, calls me negative names), and dominance (e.g., dominates decisions, controls who I see or talk to). These programs of research, from different disciplines and using somewhat different methodologies, have revealed both complexity and some coherence in the study of verbal aggression. There clearly is considerable overlap across the two programs. It is also clear that there is a broad array of tactics and strategies available for aggressing against a person.

Sometimes, however, the goal per se is not to aggress or harm another person but to gain that person’s attentions or affections. Using meta-analytic methods of combining results across studies representing all four types of methods discussed above, Cupach and Spitzberg (2004; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007b) have identified eight macrolevel clusters of behaviors that individuals employ to obsessively pursue a relationship that is unwanted by the object of pursuit. Hyperintimacy tactics represent excessive forms of flirtation and courtship, including forms of expressing affection (e.g., notes disclosing love or attraction), ingratiation (e.g., constant compliments), escalation or relationship repair bids (e.g., promising to reform), and hypersexual messages (e.g., talking “dirty” to the person). Mediated contacts represent efforts to contact a person through various communication media, including landline telephones, cellular telephones, instant messaging, faxes, e-mail, and so forth. Interactional contacts are either direct or indirect tactics directed toward establishing opportunities for interaction or conversation. Direct interactional contacts involve face-to-face conversation, approaching the person in public or private places, showing up at a place the other person is at, intruding into ongoing conversations, invading personal space, and joining activities the other person is engaged in. Indirect interactional contacts involve friends, family, coworkers, or even professional third parties to assist in pursuing contact with or harassment of the other person.

Surveillance involves a variety of behaviors directed toward keeping tabs on someone, including synchronizing activities (e.g., coordinating schedules or group activities to be in the same place as the person being pursued), loitering (e.g., hanging out at a place the other person tends to occupy), surveillance or watching (e.g., voyeurism), following (e.g., keeping an eye on the person while moving about), and drive-bys (e.g., driving or parking by the person’s home). Invasion tactics involve violations of the person’s property or privacy boundaries, including information theft (e.g., stealing a diary or a cellular telephone directory), property theft (e.g., stealing possessions such as underwear or pictures), property invasion (e.g., breaking and entering the other person’s home), and exotic forms of surveillance (e.g., surreptitiously placing a GPS [global positioning system] device in the person’s car). Harassment and intimidation reflect efforts to introduce challenge and difficulty into the other person’s life, including nonverbal intimidation (e.g., leaving potentially threatening objects on the person’s car), verbal or written harassment (e.g., derogatory notes), reputational harassment (e.g., spreading rumors), network harassment (e.g., derogatory graffiti or group e-mails), regulatory harassment (e.g., taking out a restraining order on the person), economic harassment (e.g., tying up the person’s economic resources through nuisance suits), unrelenting persistence (e.g., saturation of communication media with notes, calls), bizarre behavior or leavings (e.g., leaving odd objects where the person will find them), isolation and network alienation (e.g., disenfranchising the person’s social network).

Coercion and threats communicate some prospective punishment that will occur contingent on a person’s behavior. Threats can be based on almost any value, but common ones include threats to reputation, property, economic livelihood, victim, friends, family, colleagues, or third parties. Threats can also imply forms of sexual or physical violence, sexual exploitation or coercion, and even selfdestruction (i.e., suicide). Finally, physical violence is also used sometimes in an effort to gain another’s compliance, attention, and, ironically, affection. The types of violence are varied but common forms include vandalism, assault, endangerment, kidnapping, sexual assault or rape, assault with a weapon, or suicide attempts. Violence may result in injury or even death.

Communicative aggression and unwanted communication reveal various areas of overlap. Messages that isolate, neglect, or limit another person, symbolically or physically, represent one common form of aggression. Messages that insult, criticize, or complain about a person also clearly reflect aggressive aspects (Cupach, 2007). Messages that challenge, frustrate, or otherwise erect obstacles to a person’s life represent a form of aggressive harassment. Clearly, directing physically violent actions toward self or others represents a form of aggression. The study of unwanted communication, however, suggests that excessive efforts to pursue intimacy can also take on an aggressive function. To a large extent, these various forms of aggression are reminiscent of Karen Horney’s classic tripartite distinction. In social life, people can move toward, against, or away from one another. Likewise, it appears that people can communicate aggressively by moving toward someone (e.g., hyperintimacy), moving against someone (e.g., verbal aggression, threat), or moving (the person) away (e.g., neglecting a person, alienating the person’s social network, reputational harassment).

Prevalence of Communicative Aggression

A second common question addressed in the research on psychological abuse is to whom it happens and how often. Despite the elementary nature of this question, there are few data on the actual prevalence of psychological abuse, although there is extensive evidence on the prevalence of stalking. Summarizing research on the prevalence of psychological abuse, Dailey and colleagues (2007) estimate that between 77% and 97% of people have experienced at least one of the types of communicative aggression behaviors noted above in their current or past dating relationship. When the question is considered in terms of an ongoing or persistent pattern (i.e., abuse), the prevalence rate would be closer to between 10% and 50% of the population. In general, there are not very clear sex differences between men and women in their reported use of or victimization by psychological abuse.

Research on stalking indicates that in the general population and college population, approximately a fifth (18%–21%) have been stalked, although large-scale population surveys using rigorous definitions of stalking estimate far lower prevalence, ranging between 2% of men and 8% of women (Tjaden & Thoennes, 2000). It should be noted that approximately 75% of stalking victims are female and about 75% of stalkers are male, but when milder forms of obsessive relational intrusion are studied among college students, there are few apparent sex differences (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007b). The average case of stalking appears to last about 1.8 years. About 75% of stalking cases emerge from preexisting relationships, the majority of which are previously romantic relationships (Cupach & Spitzberg, 2004; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007b).

Effects of Communicative Aggression

The evidence is overwhelming that experiencing communicative aggression or obsessive relational intrusion has generally negative effects on people’s quality of life (Coker et al., 2000; Cupach & Spitzberg, 2004; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007b). People victimized by such behaviors are more likely to experience a number of unpleasant outcomes, including emotional (e.g., depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder), cognitive (e.g., distrust, distraction), behavioral (e.g., interference in daily routines), physiological (e.g., sleep or appetite disturbance), social (e.g., diminished social network), resource (e.g., lost job or income), and spiritual (e.g., loss of faith) health effects. There is some evidence, however, that most exposure to and most effects of psychological abuse are relatively mild (Follingstad, 2007). There is also some evidence that many victims of stalking either experience some degree of resilience or feel somewhat ambivalent about their experience (Cupach & Spitzberg, 2004). Some victims feel harassed and anxious by excessive pursuit, but they also feel somewhat flattered and desired. Some victims despise the experience of harassment, but they become motivated to “take charge” of their lives through self-improvement.

Coping With Communicative Aggression

The final typical question addressed by research applications studying communicative aggression and unwanted communication concerns how people cope with or respond to the experience of such activities. Given the variety of ways of enacting communicative aggression and abuse, it is no surprise that there are many ways in which people attempt to cope with unwanted communication. There is surprisingly little research on how people respond to communicative aggression per se, but there has been extensive research on how people respond to unwanted pursuit of intimacy. Studies indicate that people attempt to cope with unwanted pursuit in any or all of five possible ways: moving against, moving with, moving away, moving inward, or moving outward (Cupach & Spitzberg, 2004). Specifically, moving against involves attempts to cause or threaten harm to the pursuer. Moving with involves trying to negotiate or talk with the pursuer to attempt to redefine the relationship or get the pursuer to alter the pursuit behaviors. Moving away encompasses behaviors intended to avoid interacting with or encountering the pursuer. This strategy includes tactics such as changing routine behaviors to make them less predictable, “hardening the target” by improving home security, and ignoring the person in interactions. Moving inward activities represent efforts to “work on oneself,” perhaps through meditation, exercise, denial, drug use, or mental preparation. Finally, moving outward consists of contacting third parties who might be able to assist, such as counselors, friends, family, or the police.

Research indicates that victims of unwanted pursuit tend to try several of these tactics and strategies (Cupach & Spitzberg, 2004), and the fact that the average case lasts more than one and a half years is mute testimony to the relative ineffectiveness of such coping actions. Experts generally recommend two of these coping strategies over the others: moving away and moving outward. The remaining tactics involve contact with the pursuer (i.e., moving against, moving with), which may simply reinforce the unwanted activity or involve an overly passive approach (i.e., moving inward) that does little to deter the pursuer’s behavior.

Future Directions

The 21st century has already seen rapid advancements in communications technologies that permit greater interpersonal access across time and space than ever before. As access increases, however, so do opportunities for the abuse of such technologies. The activity of stalking was not explicitly made illegal until 1990. It is not surprising that not long after the activity was recognized, the term cyber stalking emerged, representing the experiences and possibilities of unwanted pursuit through communication technologies and in virtual domains.

To some extent, this “new world” is “brave” only in the sense that venturing forth into cyberspace requires placing one’s identity at great risk. The public access satellites of Google Earth are being used to spy on everyday people doing things they assume are private. GPS devices are being planted surreptitiously in people’s cars to keep track of people at a distance, and Trojan horse and zombie programs are being used to take covert control or provide unlimited access to people’s computers. Identities are stolen electronically on a daily basis. People log into various virtual spaces pretending to be a sex, race, age, or person they are not, and predators surf the Internet looking for potential prey, sometimes younger than the age of 10. Internet and online harassment can now extend an insult, phone message, photograph, or embarrassing moment from a momentary interpersonal exchange to the truly World Wide Web. Obsessive intrusion is almost a metaphor for the modern communications world, and this world is increasingly accepting the fact that these new media will be a primary means through which relationships will be found, initiated, maintained, and ended. In such a brave new world, there will be more opportunities for establishing relationships, but the cost will be less privacy and expanded opportunities for the abuse of such technologies by those who will find the media compatible with their aggressive or intimate designs.

Despite extensive research on aggressive and unwanted forms of communication, little is known about the more relational aspects of such behavior. For example, the research reveals the behaviors used to aggress and pursue intimacy in unwanted ways, and some research indicates how the receivers of such actions respond, but such findings occur in a contextual vacuum. Do people give off signals that they are capable of such forms of aggression and unwanted pursuit, and if so, how is it that these signs are so easily overlooked in the development of everyday relationships?To what extent can certain responses, or certain combinations of responses, used earlier in the initial experience of such unwanted activities, provide better protections against such activities? There are several theoretical approaches to conceptualizing why people engage in aggression or unwanted pursuit, but there are few theories that could inform ongoing processes of coping. Finally, can communicative aggression and unwanted pursuit be treated in such ways that couples may be able to reestablish healthy relationships out of the ashes of their former relationships? Future research and scholarship will need to pursue such lines of inquiry if progress is to be made in improving relationships in the 21st century.


Unwanted communication is an unfortunately common experience in everyday interaction (Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007b). It tends to take one or both of two basic goals: to establish greater intimacy with another or to harm the other person. Communication can serve both goals, and ironically, those who seek intimacy often use aggressive forms of communication in an often failed attempt to achieve that intimacy. The study of aggressive and unwanted forms of communication has revealed a vast array of strategies and tactics by which intimacy and harm may be pursued. Furthermore, research reveals that these forms of communication tend to diminish the recipients’ quality of life. There are several obvious ways in which recipients can attempt to cope with such aggressive and unwanted forms of communication, including moving inward, moving outward, moving away, moving with, or moving against the aggressor. Despite the availability and use of these coping strategies, the evidence indicates that there are few “tried and true” ways of competently stopping such aggressions and unwanted attentions. Advancing communications technologies will tend to make people more rather than less accessible and vulnerable to the aggressions and approaches of others. Given the limitations of existing coping strategies and the increased vulnerabilities implied by new technologies, the study of how unwanted communication can be managed becomes a major priority for the future.


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