Relational Aggressor:

The New Bully On The Block

by Ken Cox

The following discussion of relational aggression proposes to illustrate a type of bullying behavior that pervades all of our relationships.

You and I, by reason of our common humanity, have had more than a casual experience with the bully and victim relationship. All of us have given audience to this cruel drama and many have played the victim's role. A very few of us have come to the victim's rescue and at least one of us, unenviably, has played the bully's part.

According to traditional definitions, we ascribe the word bully to anyone who uses a position of relative power to direct negative intent against another person. Relative power can take the form of physical, financial, social and other circumstantial advantages.

When we first think of aggression, the smirking masculine icon of physical advantage most often comes to the surface. Our memories provide us with obvious and indelibly dramatic prototypes from early schoolyard experiences. Operating out of those memories, we tend to see the relationship between bully and victim as physical, driven by the fear of physical injury and dependent on physical advantage.

Ironically, the most powerful advantage comes not from the bully but from the victim: the pro-social constraint of the victim, the universal yearning for relationship, provides all the advantage the bully ever needs.

This does not absolve the bully. The susceptibility of the victim may have its enticements, but the behavior belongs solely to the bully.

Once a potential victim exhibits social constraint, or responsibility, the bully knows he or she can safely maneuver the situation to the very brink of disgrace. Counting on the integrity of the victim's constraints to keep them both from tumbling over, the bully stands on the crumbling edges of socially acceptable behavior and demands that the victim either jump or submit.

This assumes that social, professional or familial circumstances force the victim into relationship with the bully. Otherwise, the victim would simply disengage. It also assumes the victim's world view and social skill level do not provide alternatives beyond submission or escalation.

Social scientists and psychologists have recently invented a new classification of bullying that reflects the above perspective on aggression. They call it relational aggression. Interpretations of current research attach the label of relational aggressor almost exclusively to women. However, I believe the label applies as well to men.

Socially and culturally, we vastly underestimate the type of aggressive behavior characterized as relational aggression because it has a more elusive and indirect outcome than the easily observed physical aggression normally associated with the behavior of men.

Relational aggression takes form as verbal threats and abuse. Relational bullies exercise their negative intent by directing hurtful statements to their victims and, of greater significance, talking about their victims to others.

This type of aggression uses the threat of social isolation to hurt the victim. The bully's advantage resides in the value the victim places on belonging to a family, school, workplace or other group.

As we shall see later, bullies have no corresponding fear of social isolation. They do not value relationships and therefore perceive themselves as having nothing to lose: interdependent relationships signify weakness.

Relationships only expose one to the possibility of loss. Consumed by self-reliance and the need for control, relational aggressors project the source of their inadequacies and fears on to others.

Some have termed this projection as "hostile attributional bias" or paranoia. Accordingly, relational aggressors see provocation and, thereby, justification where it does not exist. Typically, they take inappropriate revenge for imagined offense and externally impose on others the solutions to problems arising from within.

Surprisingly, bullies see themselves in a positive light, probably because they have so little awareness of what others think of them. No one wants to suffer a bully's wrath by telling them the truth, and so the bully's confidence survives simply because they lack the feedback to perceive themselves correctly in social situations.

In fact, blindness to the feelings of others permeates the behavioral style and outlook of bullies. Lacking social awareness, they certainly don't see the impact of their own behavior on themselves and others. They abuse their spouses and children, creating a miserable family life and still another generation of bullies. In the end, bullies bring at least as much unhappiness upon themselves as upon their victims.

You may well ask, if relational aggression causes so much pain, why do bullies persist in it?

"It's a great strategy for getting what you want," says Illinois's Gary Ladd. "People have a need to control their environment, and perhaps some enter life with differences in that need, as occurs with other traits."

"The great psychological benefit to bullying," says Ladd, "is that bullies feel powerful, in control. They've picked a little microcosm in which to exert control. They think their behavior works because they only see the short term outcome."

Dr. Richard E. Tremblay believes the the first two years of childhood sets a mold for behavior. "Aggression is normal at that age. It builds up from nine months and reaches its highest frequency at age two, and then (hopefully) you learn that it hurts to be aggressed...(because)...adults intervene and indicate that it is the wrong behavior. Language skills increase, and aggression decreases. However, if you don't get it by age two, then you become aggressive."

Aggression seems to mimic adult behavior. Some studies indicate that children learn relational aggression from observing the mother punish or manipulate the father with aloofness and verbal abuse. I think with time we will discover the father can set the same example of abuse as the mother, and for both sons and daughters.

To psychobiologist Gary W. Kraemer, the early caregiver-infant attachment process, "the dance of mother and child," actually configures the developing nervous system and establishes the paradigm for all social behavior. The relationship between mother and infant sets the pattern, and perhaps even the desire or lack of desire for later relationships.

However, if an innate developmental need for relationship exists in infancy, and remains unmet, that unmet need in itself could create inappropriate behavior. Aloofness and other apparently counterproductive behavior such as "doing something in order to get attention", and the words "I won't let you ignore me" come to mind.

According to Kraemer, relational aggressors exhibit both aggressive and reclusive behavior without apparent cause. "They can't anticipate what is going to happen next in social interactions. Something will set them off and once in antagonistic relationships, they have a hard time stopping." They just don't get the give and take of relationships, possibly because their need to for control takes such overwhelming precedence.

We began this discussion with the obvious form of physical aggression traditionally evidenced by male schoolyard bullying and have built upon it by comparing it with relational aggression. Because awareness of relational aggression comes out of studies of female bullying it has led to an interesting and perhaps misleading conclusion regarding gender and behavior.

According to Dr. Nicki R. Crick, "Women are just as capable of being mean as men are. If you go back to the textbook definition of aggression, it's the intent to hurt or do harm," notes Crick. "We've identified a form of aggression unique to females, what we call relational aggression, hurting others by propagating rumors, forming intrigues and socially isolating the victim. If you want to hurt someone and you want it to be effective, shouldn't it involve something they really value?"

Relational bullies typically do not form deep friendships. When they do, they usually choose a very nonaggressive peer. "We think that intimacy is for them a medium of control, for gathering intelligence and achieving an end," says Crick. "Friendship with a relational bully can be a passage to psychopathology."

"If you have not observed such behaviors, it's because they are subtle and sophisticated, and far less visible than the bullying of males. While these behaviors may be harmful to society, relational bullies don't wind up in the criminal justice system," Crick concludes.

This brings us to the idea of complicit aggression. For example, you may not bully others nor suffer others to bully you, but perhaps you participate in aggression as an observer and use the passiveness of your role to rationalize your complicity.

"I no longer think of bullying as something that happens just between two people," says Toronto's Debra Pepler. "Peers are so often involved that it's really in some sense an interaction that unfolds in a context rather than in isolation."

Because this aspect of aggression involves little more than listening to rumors, the individual listener's portion of the responsibility seems to disappear. Nonetheless, someone has received an injury. Relationships have changed and a person's reputation has lost value because of words. Every single listener has amplified and perpetuated the injury.

Dr. Antonius Cillessen calls this effect on group dynamics "the hidden purpose" of relational aggression. He finds that peer groups fan the flames of aggression by conferring reputations that keep victims frozen in their roles.

"Once peers have negative expectations, no matter what victims do, even if they change their behavior, their peers filter observations of them through their negative expectations. As peers see them, they can't do anything right."

It all begins and ends with words. Bullies use words to create fear of loss and fear of injury. Bullies use words to persuade and coerce. Bullies use words to ally with some and isolate others. Bullies use words to hurt people.

When bullies go further than words we call it war, rape, assault and battery, domestic violence, child abuse and other names. We no longer call it bullying and we know how to deal with it.

Which brings us to a familiar childhood ditty, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me." Does anyone believe that? As long as the bully directs the names, threats and lies at someone else, we act as if we do. We blame the victim.

In the words of Dan Olweus, "It is a basic democratic right to feel safe and to be spared the oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation implied in bullying."

What can you do to stop relational aggression? You can begin by not making or listening to comments about another person's character.

You can improve the quality of your family life, workplace and world by discussing the behavior you want to see changed with the person who can change it.

You can increase your general awareness of relational aggression by contacting the International Society for General Semantics, P.O. Box 728, Concord, CA 94522. Ask them about E-Prime.

You and I can set an example for others. Yes, old habits die hard and it will take a lot of physical and moral courage to bring about the end of relational aggression, but a worthy goal calls for a worthy effort.

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