Relational aggression. It’s an odd phrase. Most of us are familiar with passive aggression. Most of us have probably been passive aggressive at some point, and passive aggression doesn’t necessarily favor women above men. I’ve met a fair number of passive aggressive men in my time. Relational aggression, however, seems to be a uniquely female behavior designed to alienate, disempower, and undermine girls and women through their relational connections so that the aggressor feels empowered and superior.
When I try to imagine boys or men being relationally aggressive, a rather amusing scene materializes in my mind:
“Wow, John, those are really nice pants you’re wearing.”
“Oh yeah, John, I really like your pants.”
“I bet Christine will appreciate those pants, too, because they look so great on you,” Chris says while stifling a laugh.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
“What? Oh, nothing,” Chris says while looking at Mike who is now laughing.
“I feel like you’re both laughing at me. What am I missing here?”
“Aaaaw, we would never laugh at you. We’re your friends! Oh, look, gotta run. Come on, Mike. Well, enjoy those pants! I know I did.”
John can now feel excluded, insecure, and devalued for the rest of his day, and he’ll probably go home and burn those pants. What’s more, he will avoid seeing his girlfriend wearing those pants, too, although he’ll have no idea why. This is relational aggression at work, but it’s weird to read it in a script among men, isn’t it? That script would have been more believable if I had put women’s names in it. A more appropriate male interaction would have been something like this:
“John, what the hell are you wearing?”
“Pants. What the hell are you wearing?”
“No, I mean, you look like an idiot in those. You should go home and change. In fact, never wear those again. Christine will never sleep with you again if she sees you in those pants. Seriously, what were thinking, man? Hey Mike, take a look at John’s new wardrobe choice.”
“Holy shit, man! The 80s have called. They want their pants back! Dude, where did you get those? What are those? Are you actually wearing parachute pants? Wait, wait…I have to get a picture of this. This is going on Instagram. The day John wore parachute pants to work and it wasn’t even Halloween! I’m dying…I’m dying…Chris, you have to take the picture. I can’t hold my cell phone. I’m laughing too hard…”
“Dude, I will totally take that picture! Okay, John, stand up! If you’ve got the balls to wear parachute pants to work, then you’ll be immortalized in the Instagram Hall of Fame for Worst Pants Ever Worn by John. Say cheese!”
“FINE!!! I’ll go home and change. I was just trying to be…retro. You guys suck!”
“No, we don’t suck. Your fashion sense sucks. We’re actually saving you from a life of no sex and bad pants!”
::Chris and Mike high five each other::
Was there ridicule? Yep. That’s typically male. Did John walk away from the interaction knowing exactly what was wrong with his pants? Yep. Were his friends straightforward with him? Oh, yes. He looked like an ass in his outdated parachute pants. A grown man should never wear parachute pants. In fact, the boys that wore them in middle school looked like idiots. Retro or not, they should never be resurrected and worn in public. Mike and Chris did John a favor, and, even though John is embarrassed and mad, he didn’t walk away feeling excluded or disempowered. He is just as much a part of his social group as he was before he decided to wear some of the worst pants ever designed.
Sadly, this is not how females operate. Relational aggression begins around third and fourth grade and continues from there. Once girls figure out how to manipulate other girls effectively, they do it. The hierarchies begin to form. Queen Bees emerge along with the Middle Bees who behave like drones doing whatever the Queen Bees dictate leaving behind the girls who don’t fit within that social hierarchy because they are either not wanted or chosen or because they don’t value or understand that sort of social interaction.
Grace’s BFF is becoming a Queen Bee, and her behavior is not without consequence. Grace and BFF have been friends since fifth grade. She faithfully stuck by Grace during the prodromal phase of her illness, the diagnostic phase, and even the lowest point of her illness. I remember BFF’s mother calling me one afternoon, her voice trembling as she asked me what was wrong with Grace. She was scared to allow her daughter to come over to our house because she heard BFF mention the word ‘schizophrenia’. She didn’t know what that meant, and I was actually relieved to be able to explain it to her.
Grace and BFF, however, don’t attend the same school now, and BFF is making choices in her daily life that Grace would not make. BFF is an only child. Performance and achievement are the goals that are valued in her home. From what I can tell, if she is getting all A’s and doing well in all her sports, then she is judged to be a successful human being. That is not our measure of success. I do, however, understand the temptation to equate success with performance. I was an athlete as an adolescent. I was the high achiever in my family taking all AP classes. I was the varsity athlete swimming with the seniors when I was a freshman. I lettered in theatre during my freshman year. I was the first person in my school to do that. I know what it means to perform and achieve a lot as a young person. I know about pressure and high expectations, and I know that it is absolutely not a reflection of the content of one’s character. It is not an accurate measure of a truly successful person.
What does it mean to be successful? If success is defined as having money, status, a great job, the admiration of others, and a hot significant other, then there are those who have arrived. BFF is on her way. I was on my way in high school. I was on my way in college. I had a scholarship. I was admired. I dated hot guys. I once dated a guy that was so good-looking that a server completely forgot to take my order at a restaurant because she was so taken aback by his attractiveness. He was a 10. No doubt about it. He was, however, dumb as a stump. I’m not kidding. He could barely read. I almost had to order for him, the poor lamb. The Law of Deficits and Benefits was definitely at work in his life. I did not date him for long. Honestly, I think he got together with the server which may have worked out for him, and I reevaluated by choices in boys after that date as well. Anyway, if that is how we judge our own success–by exterior standards–then there are certain standards of success that we can never hope to achieve.
Look at Bill Gates. Is he successful? If we are measuring people solely by the external rulers, then we have to exclude him based upon wardrobe, haircut, and appearance. This is shallow thinking, but this is exactly the sort of thinking that fuels relational aggression. Bill Gates is a brilliant thinker and incredible philanthropist. It is a pointless endeavor to compare ourselves to him, but this doesn’t stop us from doing so. How do we cut Bill Gates down to size in order to falsely create an accurate comparison? It might look something like this:
“I can’t believe how bad Bill Gates’ hair looks! Have you seen it? He is so frumpy! The man is a millionaire! No, a billionaire! What is it with billionaires and bad hair? I mean, I have better hair than Bill Gates! And his clothes!! I look better than he does. Don’t even get me started on Donald Trump…”
Do we feel better about ourselves after we compare ourselves to him? Am I somehow better now because I have better hair than Bill Gates but less money and status? Comparisons between people make no sense because there are seldom valid comparisons qualitatively speaking. Where one person is gifted, they are deficient in another area. Comparing them to another person makes little sense because, while one person may be deficient in one area, another may be sufficient or even gifted in that very area. It’s a question of values, and this brings me back to BFF and the idea of the system of values.
We live in a culture and educational system that place a high value on achievement and performance that also assess and measure said achievement and performance through excessive testing in order to produce a general score in order to rank and thusly predict outcomes for future success. Historically, these scores have been generally lumped under the term “IQ”, and IQ has been the predictor for whether or not a person would be successful. Let’s look at what Dr. Howard Gardner of Harvard University has to say about this:
Belief in a singular intelligence implies that humans possess a single general purpose computer, which can perform well (hi IQ), average (normal IQ) or poorly (low IQ). Belief in multiple intelligences theory implies that human beings possess several relatively independent computers; strength in one computer does not predict strength (or weakness) with other computers. Put concretely, one might have high (or low) spatial intelligence and yet that does not predict whether one will have high (or low) musical or interpersonal intelligence. (online source)
Dr. Gardner is a psychologist and neuroscientist who developed the theory of multiple intelligences (MI) in 1983. He explains his theory thusly:
I developed MI theory in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In doing so, I drew on evidence from a wide variety of sources, disciplines, and research tradition. I presented the theory for the first time in 1983, in my book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. The theory is a critique of the standard psychological view of intellect: that there is a single intelligence, adequately measured by IQ or other short answer tests. Instead, on the basis of evidence from disparate sources, I claim that human beings have a number of relatively discrete intellectual capacities. IQ tests assess linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, and sometimes spatial intelligence; and they are a reasonably good predictor of who will do well in a 20th (note: NOT 21st) century secular school.
But humans have several other significant intellectual capacities. In my original book, I described musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, interpersonal (social) intelligence, and intrapersonal intelligence (understanding of self). A few years later, I added the naturalist intelligence: the capacity to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature. I also have speculated about two other possible intelligences: existential intelligence, the intelligence of ‘big questions’; and pedagogical intelligence, the intelligence that allows human beings to convey knowledge or skills to other persons (online source).
I think that Dr. Gardner is right, and I’m not the only one. MI theory has gained ground since its introduction, and I’ve raised my daughters to view themselves through this lens rather than through the culturally applied filter which insidiously states that if one lacks good spatial intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence, then one is or will eventually be a failure. Or, as is now so prevalent in American culture, if one isn’t gifted athletically, one is a loser.
How does this relate to relational aggression? Relational aggression comes down to two things: objectification and what we value in ourselves and others. What do women value? How do we define our success? Generally speaking, women define themselves by their relationships. Men define themselves by their achievements and the power therein. Obviously, there will be exceptions in each gender. The reason, however, that relational aggression is so potent among women is because it makes relationships the weapon. Men use power in their aggressive engagements. If you want to deprive a woman of her sense of worth, take her relationships away from her as well as her ability to control others through those relationships. If you want to completely disempower a man, then symbolically castrate him.
I’ll give you an example. This is not one of my finer moments, but it paints the perfect picture. I once dated a boy in college who turned out not to be a great match. I broke it off with him over the phone. He lived 45 minutes away, and I wanted to end it cleanly and quickly (he kept flirting with other people when he was with me). We only went out for a few weeks anyway. He immediately became cruel and lost his temper. He said awful things to me. I felt very good about my decision after having experienced this part of his personality (I had to eventually hang up the phone in the middle of his angry rant). A few weeks later I was on his college campus visiting a friend when I bumped into him. He lost it. He screamed at me, called me profane names again, and I felt threatened and, frankly, angry. Yeah, I had issues with being a doormat, but how much was I supposed to put up with? He accused me of all sorts of unsavory things all because he couldn’t accept that I broke up with him. A crowd of boys and girls had gathered to listen to his invective. They looked at him. They looked at me. It was like Wimbledon. Finally, I drew in a breath and said, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re really clumsy in bed! Like…so bad.” Now, I never slept with him. I was lying, and he knew it. Like I said, not my finest moment. I was deliberately humiliating him because of his horrible behavior. I knew what I was doing. I socially castrated him because, for him, sexual prowess equaled social status and social currency. I just knocked him down to the bottom of the social hierarchy. So, what happened? Well, there was a general “ooooh” that washed over the crowd; the mid-90s equivalent to “Oh snap!”, and he shut up instantly. He glared at me. He looked murderous. I’m sure I looked smug, but that was the end of it. He stomped off in a fury. Of course, now all the boys were looking at me as if I knew what “good in bed” meant, and all the girls were looking at me judgmentally. That’s how girls are–“So, she slept with him! Slut…” My 19 year-old brain clearly did not fully understand cause and effect. I wanted to punish him for his awful behavior and shut him up. I wanted some justice, and, let’s be honest, some revenge. I didn’t exactly think it through. I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t get justice at someone else’s expense. Even if it’s a nasty ex.
This incident, however, provides a glimpse into the male experience vis-à-vis the female experience and how both girls and boys operate within differing value systems. What does this have to do with Grace or her best friend or even you and me? Well, Grace’s BFF is athletically gifted. Grace has hypotonia which makes her awkward. She doesn’t do well in sports. Her very poor working memory and executive function combined with the side effects of her medications can cause her to process information slowly. This can get in the way during conversations and making plans particularly if one isn’t patient with Grace, and 13 year-old girls are not known to be patient. If one comes from a family where performance and achievement are at the apex of the value system, then how will that translate socially? Let me ask this in different terms. How would Grace’s relationship with BFF evolve if BFF was raised to view others through a filter of kindness and empathy? What if service was the higher value rather than competition? What if volunteerism and community involvement were part of BFF’s family value system as opposed to performance and high achievement? What if valuing people, preserving relationships, and character development were part of her family’s value system rather than getting ahead, looking out for number one, and academic success regardless of how its accomplished?
When we’re honest, we have to ask these kinds of questions because our culture is founded upon a value system that worships the individual and the pursuit of self at the expense of everyone else. There is little room for mercy or compassion when competition, high achievement, and performance define you. And, it makes sense, in terms of the market place. But, let’s be honest. Who do you want to come home to at night? Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle (one of the most narcissistic CEOs you’ll ever NOT be privileged to meet) or someone a little closer on the character spectrum to Mister Rogers?
On Sunday, BFF was at our house. She has recently begun to mistreat Grace when no one else is around. This tells me one thing. She knows that what she is doing is wrong. She might say something cruel about what Grace is wearing: “Ohmigod, like, what is that? My preschool cousin wears something like that. The girls in my school would totally make fun of you for wearing that. You look so stupid…” She might behave childishly: “I wanna play a game on your phone! Come on! Come ooooon! Fine. If I can’t play with your phone, then you can never touch my phone ever, ever again. Like EVER.” She might aim for her illness: “Yeah, I know you’re slow. Like, I’ve known your brain processes information slowly. Where do you think I’ve been for the past two years? So hurry up, okay!” It won’t matter if Grace attempts to reason with her. It won’t matter if she speaks honestly. BFF doesn’t want to be told the truth or even corrected. She wants her way. Honestly, this is a parenting issue.
Girls who engage in relational aggression are more likely to have mothers who do it. They learn it from somewhere. Or, they are insecure, lacking in empathy or experiencing empathy erosion, and overcompensating for an underdeveloped or inappropriately developed identity in relation to their age. What BFF is displaying is a poorly developed empathy response. It’s up to parents to address that in their children and help their children develop that as they grow. Not every child is a born empath. We often nurture empathy at home through conversations, modeling, and shared experiences. The American public school system with its emphasis on competition, testing, performance, and sports is not going to do that for us. Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not against healthy competition or an athletics program. I was an athlete and benefited from the programs available to me, but we have become an extreme culture with misplaced values lacking in balance. An athletics program is not a substitute for good parental relationships and influence nor should athletes be off the hook for pursuing the highest level of education that they can achieve for themselves. There is a legitimate problem when school districts spend millions of dollars on their athletics programs forsaking their special education programs and even general education programs in their districts not to mention some of the cover-ups that have gone on recently in an effort to protect star athletes from natural consequences due them associated with, at times, grievous misconduct (see article).
That being said, the first thing that needs to be declared in a family system is that empathy and its development are core values. That’s only step one. Step two is developing a lifestyle that promotes learning and developing empathy through conversation, shared experience, and relationships. Step three is acknowledging that empathy is not enough. Empathy is the precursor to compassion which is an action taken to better someone else’s circumstances. Once compassion has been achieved, then all forms of aggression are subdued. We are now so accustomed to putting ourselves in the place of others that acting on behalf of others is the natural next step. Lashing out at others in order to preserve our position, as I did with my ex, suddenly becomes just one option. It isn’t the only option. There are other choices. We are no longer impoverished emotionally.
To me, this is really what aggression, particularly relational aggression, is. It is emotional poverty because it is rooted in scarcity thinking. When girls and women look at other girls and women as a threat to their social standing and, therefore, feel the need to undermine and thwart their perceived worth in order to prevent displacement, that is fear at work. That is also the objectification of others. We can’t mistreat another person if we view them as we view ourselves–a person with value worth receiving love. If I, however, know that I have value and will be cared for regardless of how many people enter and exit my social strata because I will always show up as an emotionally generous person, then I am free to be open and kind. I am now fully responsible for my position in a group, and I am trustworthy as well. This is the opposite of emotional poverty and scarcity thinking. This is generosity and empathy. I can be counted on to treat others how I want to be treated, and I will take ownership of my behavior regardless of how others treat me. This is a mark of emotional maturity.
If we were mentored in this way beginning in school, how would our social groups look? Would women attempt to manipulate other woman using relationships as the currency? Would men participate in power plays? What would the state of bullying in this country look like? What would our educational system look like if we stopped measuring children’s intelligence, future potential for success, and ability to contribute in the present solely by their linguistic and logical-mathematical capabilities? What about Dr. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences? What if we began introducing children to that in preschool?
“Okay, so you got a D in math. You’ve got incredible social intelligence though, and the world needs that, too. You may not be a mathematician, but you might be an amazing sociologist or therapist. Never forget how capable you are.”
I think that we must never forget our role as parents, mentors, neighbors, and even acquaintances. There is incredible power in our words. There is incredible power in our actions. How we live and show up in the world every day can be an example of what is truly good be it with a smile or an extra big tip or an affirmation to the child down the block. We can make small choices every day in how we listen, make eye contact, and shake someone’s hand that convey to someone else that they have worth. We can choose to develop an empathetic lifestyle that will, little by little, counter the broader culture that is, like it or not, bent on self-interest. As women, we can take the initiative and refuse to engage in relational aggression and teach our daughters how to do the same. Men can model healthy masculinity that does not exploit or overpower others.
No one can change a culture in a day, but a generation of people could bring change to a culture in less time than you realize.
Isn’t that a fanciful thought? We could teach our culture the Golden Rule again. We could actually teach others to care again.
We just have to teach our kids first.
Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice by Dr. Howard Gardner
Mean Girls Grown Up: Adult Women Who Are Still Queen Bees, Middle Bees, and Afraid-to-Bees by Cheryl Dellasega
Club Ophelia: for an excellent description of the behaviors associated with relational aggression (RA) in adolescence and even elementary school click the link provided. Also, learn about mentoring opportunities and strategies to reduce RA through Club Ophelia’s website.