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I would like to talk about a controversial topic this week - the potential role of insults, put-downs, and negative statements in relationships. While most agree that these types of communication are not conducive to a loving relationship, others contend that they are nevertheless effective in building attraction and compliance (at least, when used sparingly). Although contrary to moral sensibility, can it be true? Does insulting a partner make you more attractive? Do their insults back make you love (or lust) for them more too?
Within the domain of intimate relationships, these insulting statements generally take two forms:
Neg (or Negging) - According to the Urban Dictionary, negs or negging are, "low-grade insults meant to undermine the self-confidence of a woman so she might be more vulnerable to advances". Although both men and women sometimes "neg" during early flirting efforts, this is a tactic first described by pick-up artists (PUAs). There are several explanations for the tactic, however, they all employ some sort of backhanded compliment, which temporarily lowers the target's self-esteem while leaving the speaker blameless. Theoretically, this lowered self-esteem in the target makes the speaker seem more attractive by comparison.
Nag (or Nagging) - Nagging is defined as, "to annoy by persistent faultfinding, complaints, or demands". This is also an insulting behavior performed in intimate relationships by both women and men, however, it is behavior more stereotypically attributed to women (e.g. the "nagging wife"). Also similar to the above, nagging is intended to emotionally diminish the target, to get them to comply with some request of the speaker. Repeated nagging may have the effect of making the target feel worthless and beholden - or simply drive them away.
Given the above, it seems that some fairly unpleasant interpersonal behaviors can be part of dating and relationships. Why do they persist? Can lowering someone's self-esteem really make them more compliant and susceptible to romantic advances? Should we be on guard?
Walster (1965) investigated the influence of momentary self-esteem on receptivity to the romantic advances of a stranger. The researcher arranged for a group of female participants to interact with a male research assistant who flirted with them. The female participants were then given positive or negative personality test feedback. After their self-esteem was increased or decreased in that way, they were asked to rate their liking for the male research assistant.
The results of the study indicated that women who had their self-esteem temporarily lowered found the male research assistant significantly more attractive than the women with temporary high-self esteem. Walster (1965) theorized that this effect occurred for two reasons. First, individuals who feel "imperfect" themselves may demand less in a partner. Second, a person usually has an increased need for acceptance and affection when their self-esteem is low. Overall then, when an individual is made to feel "low", they find potential romantic partners more attractive.
Research by Gudjonsson and Sigurdsson (2003) explored the relationship between self-esteem and compliance with requests. Both male and female participants were asked to complete various measures of self-esteem, compliance, and coping behaviors. The results of their analysis supported the hypothesis that individuals with lower self-esteem are more compliant and agreeable to the requests of others. Thus, lower self-esteem appears to lead to greater compliance with requests (or demands) as well.
Given the research above, there may be truth to the claims of PUAs and nagging spouses. Temporary insults that lower self-esteem may indeed make an individual more receptive to romantic advances and more compliant with requests. This is especially true when the lowered self-esteem cannot be blamed on the other interaction partner (such as when the insult is a backhanded compliment, or the spouse internalizes the nagging statements). Overall then, the occasional insult may indeed have the reported effect of making a lover more interested and compliant.
Having said that, there are a few caveats and words of warning...
First and foremost, using such tactics often comes from a place of powerlessness and low self-esteem (Dean, 1964-5). In the end then, they may not lead to lasting, satisfying relationships - just to both individuals being miserable (Boxer, 2002). Therefore, while the potential short-term effects are intellectually interesting, any temporary gain could be off-set by even greater long-term difficulties. It would simply be better to find a reasonable partner, with appropriate self-esteem, who is agreeable and attracted from the start.
Second, it is important to note, however, that these tactics do have an effect. Individuals should be aware that insults can influence their attraction and compliance. A spouse or date that makes you feel low may actually be making you fall for them more - not less. So, guys and gals beware.
Third, for those who are concerned about the ethics of specific forms of insults in relationships, it might be a good idea to broaden your definitions. Such tactics are not confined to a subset of individuals (e.g. PUAs) or a single gender. Both men and women nag and neg. Both insult to lower self-esteem, gain a compliance advantage, and influence romantic feelings. Therefore, rather than simply advocating for the abolishment of one type of behavior, or one gender's use, we might want to arrange an overall cease-and-desist of such tactics. At least, making everyone aware of the potential effect of ALL of these types of behaviors is a start.
Insults and communications that lower self-esteem can make an individual more compliant and more receptive to romantic advances. So, beware. That nagging partner may just be manipulating you more than you know. Thus, it might be best for long-term relationship satisfaction to keep things positive and find someone who will do likewise!
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© 2013 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.