Hurtful communication

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Hurtful communication occurs when the receiver perceives social interaction as upsetting or harmful emotionally.[1] In the course of human interaction, one party will say or do something that causes negative emotional feelings for another.[2] Negative social interactions can be intentional where one or both parties are involved in interpersonal conflict or unintentional where misunderstandings occur. Actions such as failure to recognize accomplishments or significant dates can cause hurtful outcomes within relationships.[3] Hurtful communication more commonly occurs in intimate relationships where parties have disclosed more information to one another than stranger interaction.[4] Hurtful communication has been studied in romantic relationship and parent-child relationships with findings having potential applications in sibling relationships, in-law relationships, work relationships, educator-student relationships, and friendships. In relation to other negative emotions such as anger or guilt, hurt is more often linked to interpersonal interaction.[3] Interactions are adversely affected by hurtful communication.[5] Hurtful communication negatively affects trust within a relationship resulting in more defensive behavior by both parties.[6] Hurtful communication topics can be found interpersonal communication and relational communication research.

Defining hurtful communication[edit]

Types of hurtful verbal communications and actions:

  • Devaluation – the perception that one is not as close as thought. This can be a result of verbal or non-verbal communication where one party feels less important than they desire within the exchange. Often, devaluation is manifest through betrayal and/or rejection.[3]
  • Relational transgressions – the violation of relationship norms which causes one party to feel betrayal.
  • Hurtful messages- words that result in pain. Commonly these messages are combinations of profanity, threats or attacks on appearance, competencies, origins or character.[7] The content of the message and the delivery play a part in how a hurtful message is interpreted.[8]

Factors such as whether the hurtful communication was intentional and the frequency of occurrence has an impact on the meaning of the event.[2] Types of hurtful communication include relational denigration, humiliation, aggression, intrinsic flaw, shock, tasteless humor, misunderstood intent, and discouragement as probable causes of hurt feelings.[2][3] Hurtful communication is interaction that causes the victim to feel marginalized.[9]

The injured party most often is harmed by the undermining of self-concept[3] causing loss of self-worth resulting in estrangement within the relationship as the victim has difficulty trusting themselves and the one who engaged in hurtful communication.

Use of hurtful communication[edit]

Communication is not exclusively a sender/receiver exchange of finite information. What is communicated through verbal and nonverbal communication is interpreted by both parties through a lens of schema of previous experiences and knowledge. Rather than scholarly research defining phrases and terms that universally are considered hurtful, researchers focus on what communication causes negative feelings in the victim. Expressions of honest feelings by one party can be devastating to the other such as professions of attraction to another person or expressing disinterest in continuing a romantic relationship.[10] A child displaying disinterest in a parent's involvement could be considered hurtful communication just as a parent criticism could be hurtful to an adolescent. In less familiar relationships such as acquaintances or strangers, hurtful communication is more general and typically focused on observations such as gender, race, sexual orientation or identity, ethnicity, national origin, or religion often in the form of verbal slurs and hate words.[11] The more familiar the relationship becomes, the more specific and personal hurtful communication potential.

Responses to hurtful communication[edit]

Guerrero, Anderson & Afifi (2010) noted three ways people react and respond to hurtful communication:[4]

  • Active verbal responses- Verbally confronting the offending party.
  • Acquiescent responses- Acknowledging the offender's ability to inflict pain and surrendering. This action includes forgiveness.
  • Invulnerable responses- Avoidance of acceptance of a hurtful message often deflected through humor or ignoring. Rumination (over-focusing on the occurrence rather than solutions) may prevent one from moving past the infraction.[6]

It is probable that one or more (even all three) responses occur in when someone is faced with hurtful communication. In cases where the injured party perceived the hurtful communication intentional relational distancing often occurred which complicates resolution.[3]


Hurtful communication studies fall under relational communications which is an interdisciplinary subject with connections to psychology, sociology, and communication fields. Researchers have produced various studies over past two decades relating to hurtful communication.

Romantic Relationships[edit]

Scholarly research on the topic of hurtful communication in romantic relationships is more readily available than any other category. Romantic partners use communication to construct and evolve their relationship or as a means to sabotage stability.[10] Partners rate their relationships based on the current communication (whether positive or negative).[10] Perhaps due to the closeness and interdependency of romantic relationships, communication between romantic partners that is deemed hurtful has significant impact on current and future interaction.Young, Bippus, & Dunbar (2015) state the intimate knowledge of the significant other's hopes, fears and insecurities enable each party to inflict pain more deeply than others in one's life.[1] Intimate knowledge of all aspects of another's life gives access that can be used both positively and negatively. In conflict interaction, observations from one's partner may be processed differently than a non-conflict interaction.[1]

Self-uncertainty often occurs after a negative exchange rather than partner-uncertainty.[6] When both self-uncertainty and partner-uncertainty occur the relationship status is called into question.[6] Malachowski et al., (2015) found when self-uncertainty or partner-uncertainty occurred, it was more likely the parties would engage in forgiveness after a hurtful communication event theorizing it was part of the coping mechanism to reduce relationship-uncertainty.[6]

Parent-Child Relationships[edit]

The parent-child relationship is to some degree involuntary but both parties develop communication that provides the structure for the relationship.[9] Relationships between parent and child is a deeply connected bond that evolves over time where familiarity and the changing dynamics can result in hurtful communications.[12] The responsibility of parents to nurture their offspring has been theorized to result in more hurt feelings for the parents than the child when hurtful communications occur.[12] While adolescence also feel pain from hurtful communications, adolescence may be less likely to verbalize their feelings perhaps due to the parent-child dependence that exists.[12] Perceived rejection or betrayal between parent-child results in doubts of self, other and relationship as questioning of honesty, intimacy and closeness often occurs.[12] Self-identity and family-identity is unstable when hurtful communication has or is occurring because eventually communication will be impaired.[9] Since the attachment between parent and child differs from that of a romantic relationship, there is a difference in how hurtful communication is processed.


  1. ^ a b c Young, Stacy L.; Bippus, Amy M.; Dunbar, Norah E. (January 2015). "Comparing Romantic Partners' Perceptions of Hurtful Communication During Conflict Conversations". Southern Communication Journal. 80 (1): 39–54. doi:10.1080/1041794X.2014.941113. ISSN 1041-794X.
  2. ^ a b c Bippus, Amy M.; Young, Stacy L. (2012-12-19). "Using Appraisal Theory to Predict Emotional and Coping Responses to Hurtful Messages". Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships. 6 (2): 176–190. doi:10.5964/ijpr.v6i2.99. ISSN 1981-6472.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Vangelisti, Anita L.; Young, Stacy L.; Carpenter-Theune, Katy E.; Alexander, Alicia L. (August 2005). "Why does it hurt? The perceived causes of hurt feelings". Communication Research. 32 (4): 443–477. doi:10.1177/0093650205277319. ISSN 0093-6502. EBSCOhost edsgcl.134536875.
  4. ^ a b Guerrero, Laura K. (2017-03-24). Close encounters : communication in relationships. Andersen, Peter A.,, Afifi, Walid A. (Fifth ed.). Los Angeles. ISBN 9781506376721. OCLC 962141064.
  5. ^ Vangelisti, Anita L. (2015-12-01). "Hurtful Communication". In Berger, Charles R; Roloff, Michael E; Wilson, Steve R; Dillard, James Price (eds.). The International Encyclopedia of Interpersonal Communication. A–E. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. pp. 1–9. doi:10.1002/9781118540190.wbeic178. ISBN 9781118540190.
  6. ^ a b c d e Malachowski, Colleen C.; Frisby, Brandi N. (2015-03-15). "The Aftermath of Hurtful Events: Cognitive, Communicative, and Relational Outcomes". Communication Quarterly. 63 (2): 187–203. doi:10.1080/01463373.2015.1012218. ISSN 0146-3373.
  7. ^ Hoskins, Natalie; Woszidlo, Alesia; Kunkel, Adrianne (Fall 2016). "Words can hurt the ones you love: Interpersonal trust as it relates to listening anxiety and verbal aggression". Iowa Journal of Communication. 48 (1/2): 96–112. EBSCOhost 118459975.
  8. ^ Young, Stacy L. (2010-02-09). "Positive Perceptions of Hurtful Communication: The Packaging Matters". Communication Research Reports. 27 (1): 49–57. doi:10.1080/08824090903526562. ISSN 0882-4096.
  9. ^ a b c Dorrance Hall, Elizabeth (September 2017). "The process of family member marginalization: Turning points experienced by "black sheep"". Personal Relationships. 24 (3): 491–512. doi:10.1111/pere.12196.
  10. ^ a b c Dunleavy, Katie Neary; Goodboy, Alan K.; Booth-Butterfield, Melanie; Sidelinger, Robert J.; Banfield, Sara (2009-02-20). "Repairing Hurtful Messages in Marital Relationships". Communication Quarterly. 57 (1): 67–84. doi:10.1080/01463370802664701. ISSN 0146-3373.
  11. ^ Leetaru, Kalev (2017-02-23). "Fighting Words Not Ideas: Google's New AI-Powered Toxic Speech Filter Is The Right Approach". Forbes. Retrieved 2019-10-19.
  12. ^ a b c d McLaren, Rachel M.; Pederson, Joshua R. (February 2014). "Relational Communication and Understanding in Conversations about Hurtful Events Between Parents and Adolescents". Journal of Communication. 64 (1): 145–166. doi:10.1111/jcom.12072.

Further reading[edit]

  • Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Smith, D. (2016). After sticks, stones, and hurtful words. Educational Leadership, 74(3), 54–58.
  • Hesse, C., Rauscher, E. A., Roberts, J. B., & Ortega, S. R. (2014). Investigating the Role of Hurtful Family Environment in the Relationship Between Affectionate Communication and Family Satisfaction. JOURNAL OF FAMILY COMMUNICATION, (2), 112. EBSCOhost RN352950280
  • McLauren, R.M. & Sillars, A.L. (2014, October 1). Talking about hurtful communication in the family. National Communication Association.