England recently passed a landmark law protecting the victims of emotional abuse. The new law makes it a crime to engage in controlling behavior through social media or through online stalking. By criminalizing such behaviors, which are all-too-common precursors to physical abuse in relationships, the law offers an important level of protection to people suffering in coercive relationships, and could even help prevent such relationships from evolving into more extreme forms of abuse.

In the U.S., statistics show that well over 1 million people, primarily women, suffer from domestic abuse each year, typically at the hands of husbands, boyfriends, ex-husbands, or ex-boyfriends. In regions of the country characterized by a strong orientation toward honor, rates of the most extreme form of domestic abuse—domestic homicide—are likely to be higher than in other regions, at least among Caucasians.1 According to studies by social psychologists Joseph Vandello and Dov Cohen,2,3 this elevated pattern of relationship violence is likely the result of some men attempting to “defend their honor” by controlling partners or ex-partners, or by punishing them for real or perceived acts of betrayal. In honor cultures, where defense of reputation takes center stage in social life, there are few threats to a man as powerful as being cheated on by his romantic partner.

   Ryan P. Brown, Ph.D.  Ryan P. Brown, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and the L. J. Semrod Presidential Professor of Psychology at the University of Oklahoma.

Editor:  Arman Ahmed

Other research4 reveals numerous less severe forms of controlling behaviors that relationship partners sometimes engage in and that are predictive of actual domestic violence. Here is a list of 10 such “red light” behaviors, also known as “mate guarding” or “mate retention” tactics, which people should take as warning signs when they see them occur in their own or others’ relationships. [Although the following are written from the perspective of a husband controlling his wife, they can occur in any relationship, from any romantic partner.]

  1. Calls frequently to make sure partner is where she said she would be.
  2. Does not take partner to a party where other men would be present.
  3. Insists that she spend all her free time with him.
  4. Becomes angry when she appears to flirt with other men.
  5. Stares angrily at any man who looks at her for too long.
  6. Gets his friends to beat up someone who is interested in her.
  7. Takes his wife away from a gathering where other men are around.
  8. Spends all of his free time with her so that she can't meet anyone else.
  9. Shows interest in another woman to make her angry.
  10. Punches another man who flirts with her.

People frequently construe these red-light behaviors in a positive way, putting a psychological “spin” on them that can minimize concern and even justify them. For instance, a woman whose partner exhibits such behaviors might decide that they simply show how committed he is to the relationship. She might believe that such behavior is desirable in a relationship partner, rather than a warning sign of potential danger. After all, she might tell herself, who wants to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t get a little jealous from time to time?

In a recent study of more than 300 married women conducted by Kiersten Baughman at the University of Oklahoma, this is precisely what women tended to do—if they embraced the cultural ideology of honor.5 Indeed, although women reported more negative views of their husbands if they engaged in these mate guarding behaviors, this negative association between partner perceptions and mate guarding disappeared almost completely for women high in honor ideology. For these women, a partner who engaged in mate guarding was no less desirable than a partner who didn’t. As a consequence, such women might be expected to keep the behavior secret, to avoid seeking help, or to refuse to leave a partner when he turns from “mere” mate guarding to actual physical abuse. Baughman’s data suggest that women who scored high in honor ideology were, in fact, more likely to report that their husbands had engaged in mate guarding behaviors during the past year.

Culture has consequences, even for relationships: People bound by the ideology of honor might find themselves chained to an abusive partner and be unable to see their partner for who he or she really is.