Hostility in a Relationship is the Prelude to the End

Hostility in a relationship happens when you're in a situation of apparent peace and all of a sudden a friend, family member, or significant other covertly declares war. What's the best way to confront this situation?
Hostility in a Relationship is the Prelude to the End

Last update: 22 September, 2020

Hostility in a relationship manifests as an attitude of contempt with a conscious intention to do harm. This intention manifests in different ways. For instance, a person might express it covertly or through gossip and slander or more explicitly through verbal or physical attacks.

Hostility is an unpleasant emotional experience because it doesn’t stem from a situation of opposition, war, or competition. It’s more of a feeling directed towards a significant other, friend, or sibling in what was supposed to be “a friendly environment”.

“Hostility, malice, and sadism are the result of helplessness and self-loathing; that they are all produced by adaptation to a hypercritical social reality and are not attributable to innate aggression.”

-Arno Gruen-


A woman yelling at a man.

How hostility in a relationship feels like

The best way to understand hostility is by experiencing it. However, people seldom forget it after they do. It’s very uncomfortable to be the object of attacks you can hardly defend yourself against because they’re passive. Especially if these attacks are caused by someone important to you.

Thus, hostility feels like:

  • An incessant and veiled attack or offense towards your attitudes or opinions.
  • When someone uses your words as a weapon against you. It’s almost like they’re trying to set a trap to “reveal” what you never intended to say.
  • Criticism towards aspects of your life that have little or nothing to do with the situation going on at a given moment. For example, someone brings out details or experiences in surprising and non-consensual ways with other people when you’re present.
  • Direct or indirect pressure to make you change your mind, beyond any dialogue or debate.
  • An assessment of your needs or state of mind. “Psychoanalyzing” you when you haven’t asked for it.
  • Comparing their lives to yours in order to make you see that your problems “aren’t so bad” and your achievements “that great”.
  • They point out how good they feel with certain people, especially those who have the attributes you lack in a veiled way.
  • Finally, they claim you’re not listening or that you’re “inaccessible”.

These are only a few examples of how to identify hostility. There are many forms of hostile behavior. Obviously, all hostile behaviors have different intensities and ways of presenting themselves.

What makes a person hostile towards another?

In many cases, the element that maintains hostility is a lack of social skills. There’s anger and resentment but the person isn’t capable of starting or maintaining an open and honest dialogue about what’s happening. Thus, they manifest their anger in a hostile way.

However, this attitude isn’t honest because, far from being constructive, it demolishes; far from strengthening bridges, it weakens them. In many cases, it’s reasonable not to want to maintain this kind of relationship over time. This is because you’ll continue to hurt each other until you finally break up.

Two people displaying hostility in their relationship.

Hostility in a relationship is a harmful and ineffective form of communication

Everyone has a hard time empathizing with a hostile person. However, it’s not about feeling empathy, but about stimulating reflection and recommending psychological help. The intervention of a third party can channel anger and rage in ways other than hostility and resentment.

These are some of the possible causes of overt or covert hostility:

  • Many people with hostile behavior have inherited significant psychological wounds from early childhood neglect and abuse. They neither want to be aware of it and of the pain it causes them nor do they know what to do about it.
  • Psychological wounds can be caused by impulsiveness, anger, and sarcasm. In many cases, people who maintain a hostile attitude ignore the long-term consequences of their disrespect.
  • People who display hostile behaviors are unaware of effective communication skills. They’ve been involved in repeated dynamics of conflict where the solution was either to win or to feel deeply humiliated.
  • Hostile people often confuse frankness with an offense. In addition, they don’t know when and how to express certain comments or when their behavior is the source of tension.
  • They’re often unaware that their social needs aren’t being met and it further deteriorates their self-esteem.
  • They don’t expect the person they’re harassing to confront them. When it happens, there’s usually neither self-criticism nor reflection but rather an increase in hostility itself.

Final notes

All of these factors combine to promote mutual dislike, disrespect, and mistrust, which hinder effective problem solving, forgiveness, and genuine cooperation.

Therefore, if you’re holding a grudge and manifest it in the form of covert unresolved anger, you’d better stop for a second and opt for a strategy that’s not infused with hostility. You should consider professional help.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.