It’s the first day of PTA meetings, a young attractive mom enters the room and greets everyone. Most of the occupants respond cordially , except two women who half-smile at her, then look at each other and laugh condescendingly. The women begin whispering, and after the young mother leaves the room they speak lies about her so that others in their immediate vicinity can hear. Sadly, some of these lies are believed at face value by others. The young mother is completely clueless as to why she’s been alienated by some of the other parents. We’ve all witnessed this behavior; most of us would describe it as “catty”, but there’s an actual term for this type of bullying: relational aggression.
Relational aggression (RA) is an unprovoked type of aggression that is intended to harm others through deliberate manipulation of their social standing and relationships. It can be proactive (planned and goal-oriented) or reactive (in response to perceived threats, hostility, or anger). While not exclusive to women, instances of RA are much more common in female circles than male dominated environments. In my life, instances of RA have reappeared time and again, and I’ve been both concerned witness and exasperated victim. One thing many articles on the subject fail to mention is the fact that this adolescent behavior often continues into adulthood. Mean girls grow up to be mean adults.
The aggressor in RA is the quintessential adult “mean girl”. She can be found gossiping viciously about a friend with whom she’d been smiling and laughing with in moments prior. She will text her friend something cruel about a woman who’s seated across from both of them at the table. The grown up mean girl will often have a clique in which they are queen of the hive, as well as a few weaker bees who follow close behind often reporting to the aggressor as a method of self-preservation. The victims of RA are often blindsided by this behavior, wrongly believing themselves to be the cause.
Have you ever wondered why such behavior exists? According to psychologists, an aggressor’s behavior is rooted in the desire for power, status, or the maintenance thereof. In this quest, the aggressor will employ manipulation tactics and other passive-aggressive behaviors in an attempt to alienate, demonize, belittle, or otherwise harm the object of their prey.
The word “prey” brings to mind a visual of an innocent bunny placed in a snake habitat; in female relations the “hunter-prey” dynamic is much more insidious. Adult mean girls will often exchange pleasantries with the same women they’re back biting, smiling to their face while planting seeds of doubt among peers. This behavior happens in communities, workplaces, even churches.
When someone we don’t get along with is openly berating or otherwise mistreating us, we’re better enabled to respond by questioning their motivation, asking to be handled differently, talking about the underlying issue, or finding a path to take away from the aggressor. In the case of RA, the aggression is more covert. The aggressor either feels threatened by her victim or sees her as an easy target. This leaves the victim in an awkward situation. If she approaches the aggressor in the wrong way, the victim is likely to be met with denial, and accused of paranoia, therefore fueling more gossip and slander.
As someone who has felt confused and upset both observing and experiencing RA, I set out to find some answers. In my search I came across the work of Cheryl Dellasaga, author of “Mean Girls Grow Up” and other books on the subject of relational aggression. Dr. Dellasaga describes any group of women as a potential breeding ground for relational aggression, specifically when one feels the need to hold the power. She asserts that aggressors reject others to counteract their own fear of rejection, and nearly always suffer a backlash after creating a caustic and abusive environment.In dealing with RA, Dr. Dellsaga encourages victims to move forward with a cool head and a sense of detachment. I’ve paraphrased her recommendations below:
1. Step back in realization that the aggressors cruel behavior isn’t a reflection of you.
2. Do your own detective work to find out why the aggressor is behaving in such a way.
3. Track the aggressors behavior and its frequency.
4. Record the events forming a list, and approach the aggressor in a neutral way.
5. If there are bystanders reach to them for support in a positive way.
6. Collaborate with someone you can form a positive relationship. Collaboration helps people recognize your abilities and interests, and defends you from a negative situation.
This advice can be utilized in many environments. At times it may be necessary to remove oneself from a group or situation; I believe this should be secondary to seeking support, and approaching the situation proactively. For more information on relational aggression visit http://www.cheryldellasaga.com.
Murray-Close, Diana; Ostrov, Jamie M.; Nelson, David A.; Crick, Nicki R.; Coccaro, Emil F. (2009). “Proactive, reactive, and romantic relational aggression in adulthood: Measurement, predictive validity, gender differences, and association with Intermittent Explosive Disorder”. Journal of Psychiatric Research.