Can your partner’s experience of workplace abuse affect your marriage?

Recent research seems to suggest that it can.

First, when one person experiences mistreatment at work, his or her spouse is more likely to experience health decrements. In a study of over 2000 couples, Haines, Marchand, and Harvey (2006) found workplace aggression experienced by one or both partners in a relationship increased the level of psychological distress in the other partner.

But it gets worse…

Carlson, Ferguson, Perrewe, & Whitten (2011) studied 280 couples and found that when employees are abused by their supervisors, they experience greater relationship tension at home, leading to poorer family functioning.

These results are disturbing. Most research to date has confined the negative outcomes of workplace mistreatment to the organization. We expect workplace aggression to negatively affect target attitudes and performance at work. It seems obvious that if our supervisor mistreats us, we might like our job less!

But once we leave the workplace that should be the end of it.

Not so. It seems that workplace aggression knows no boundaries. In a particularly compelling study, Hoobler and Brass (2006) found that when supervisors experience workplace injustice they are more likely to behave aggressively towards their subordinates. This is what’s known as “displaced aggression” or a “kick the dog” effect in which one person takes out their negative experiences on someone else. But the story doesn’t end there. These researchers also surveyed subordinates’ family members and found that mistreated subordinates are more likely to go home and undermine their family members! Effectively, workplace aggression can trickle down from a supervisor, to a subordinate, to the subordinate’s family.

So what’s next? Do kids who are mistreated by parents who are mistreated by supervisors go to school and become bullies? The implications are worrisome.

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