Aggression has been classified in a variety of ways. It is important to differentiate between the types of abuse perpetrated, because they may differ in their etiology, course, potential harmfulness, and amenability to intervention. Expressive violence (also known as hostile, impulsive, and reactive aggression) is affect driven. It is triggered by emotional reactions that are disproportionate to the situational factors that elicit them. The triggers may stimulate feelings of hurt and/or fear that are transformed into anger. Expressive violence may be physical or verbal, expressed directly toward an intimate partner; indirectly toward objects, pets, or other people; or even self-directed. The abuse tends to be brief and explosive. Following the violent outburst, expressive aggressors often experience genuine remorse as the tension that fueled the abuse abates, and they are often apologetic. Victims may be harmed by the assault, but expressive aggressors typically stop the abuse at the sign of distress by the victim. While the physical injuries are rarely severe, victims often suffer emotional trauma, and the intimidation they feel depreciates the quality of their relationship with the abuser. Because their remorse is real, expressive aggressors are often motivated to seek and to benefit from intervention.
Expressive violence may be viewed on a continuum, with expressive aggression at one end, predatory violence at the other, and instrumental aggression in between. Expressive violence differs markedly from predatory abuse, which is normally far more destructive. Although a particular act of expressive violence may be easily distinguishable from predatory abuse, it may be harder to differentiate an act of expressive violence from instrumental or goal-oriented violence, as some acts of aggression may be both expressive and instrumental in nature. Of note, some have characterized this continuum of aggression as simply ranging from expressive through instrumental abuse.
Expressive aggressors may respond disproportionately and counterproductively to mislabeled provocations. Learning to label one’s experience in problem-solving terms, and thereby to balance one’s responses with the intensity of the triggering events, is a core component of the process of developmental socialization. Children who were not exposed to appropriate models or who experienced trauma that exceeded their resources for resilience may not have learned the adaptive coping skills that are needed to weigh the meaning of social offenses and to plan a constructive, problem-solving response. Even when developmental experience does support adaptive functioning, emotional problems such as depression, severe anxiety, fatigue or stress, and use of alcohol and certain drugs can overwhelm coping resources.
When intervening with expressive aggressors, it may be helpful to direct attention to reducing the emotional and situational pressures and/or substance abuse that may weaken the aggressor’s ability to manage triggering situations constructively. Helping the aggressor develop prosocial problem-solving skills and the ability to self-manage emotional surges may also prove beneficial. If the aggressor and victim are intimate partners who wish to continue their relationship, both could participate in developing routines that improve the quality of their interaction while building in safeguards, such as time-outs, that protect the victim from future abuse.