Why do some men insult their partners?

Men who habitually insult their wives or girlfriends do so, somewhat paradoxically, as part of a broader strategy to prevent them from leaving for someone else – what evolutionary psychologists call 'mate retention'.

Steve Stewart-Williams and colleagues asked 245 men (average age 29 years) to report how many times in the last month they had insulted their partner using one or more examples from a list of 47 insults, arranged into 4 categories: physical insults, insults about personal value or mental capacity (e.g. “I called my partner an idiot”), accusations of sexual infidelity, and derogating their value as a person (e.g. “I told my partner she will never amount to anything”).

The men were also asked to report their use of 104 mate-retention behaviours, such as whether they became jealous when their partner went out without them, and whether they checked up on where their partner said they would be at a given time.

The men who insulted their partners more also tended to engage in more mate-retention behaviours. A similar association was found in a second experiment in which a separate sample of 372 women were asked to say how often their partners insulted them, and how often they engaged in mate-retention behaviours. The researchers said insults might serve a mate-retention function, by making a “woman feel that she cannot secure a better partner, with the result that she is less likely to defect from the relationship.”

Past research has shown that men who engage in mate-retention behaviours are more likely to be violent towards their partners. This study appears to support that research by showing that such men are also more likely to use what might be considered verbal violence.

The researchers said that future research should also focus on the extent of women's use of partner-directed insults and the function they serve.

McKibbin, W.F., Goetz, A.T, Shackelford, T.K., Schipper, L.D., Starratt, V.G. & Stewart-Williams, S. (2007). Why do men insult their intimate partners? Personality and Individual Differences, 231-241.

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