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How to Spot "Relational Aggression" in your Female Friendships

Updated: May 3, 2023

black woman drinking a cup of water. She's thinking about relational aggression.

Relationships are a woman’s greatest resource. Yet so often, female friendships can be strained under the stress of conflict— especially the kind of conflict you can't see.

This kind of tension is described as "relational aggression," and it includes gossiping, acts of exclusion, silent treatment, or public embarrassment.

In our resident friendship expert Danielle Bayard Jackson's upcoming book (tentatively titled Fighting for Our Friendships, May 2024), she'll spend some time outlining what relational aggression is and how it works. But for now, let's explore a fundamental sense of the concept.

Let’s get into what relational aggression can look like in female friendships and the ways in which we can begin to notice these behaviors in ourselves.

What is Relational Aggression?

The phrase 'relational aggression' may be unfamiliar, but ultimately it's anything you may typically refer to as "mean girl behavior." You may understand it as being petty, calculating, and sneaky.

The working definition we'll use includes trying to cut someone down without physical aggression.

While the tactic isn't exclusive to women, there are many cultural, social, and psychological influences that make it a go-to strategy for women who find themselves in conflict with one another. So much strength and power come from female friendships that when another woman harms that connection, there’s a ripple effect, and rebuilding that network of relationships is tough work.

If we want to begin repairing and deepening our female friendships collectively, as a sisterhood, we have to first get clear on what relational aggression looks like and why we do it. Then we can get clear on why we are sometimes guilty of reaching for those tools when we feel threatened or hurt.

Dealing with Relational Aggression

women wearing blazers, ignoring each other by holding phone and drinking coffee - how to deal with relational aggression

So how does one face these nasty habits and add more productive behaviors to their friendship toolbox? Why be a mean girl?

Danielle Bayard Jackson-- female friendship coach and educator-- argues that in the media, the "mean girl" is a caricature. Ultimately, she represents a set of collective behaviors. And while it may be more dramatized, the use of underhanded comments, passive aggression, and snide remarks are things that everyone pulls from. Women, in particular, do this because we don't want to (and socially cannot) appear uncooperative. So relational aggression allows us to inflict harm without being able to be called out for it.

Relational aggression is covert, meaning it lives underground. This makes it difficult to identify and confront. But many women might opt for this kind of retaliation because they face real social consequences if they aggress physically.

Why are girls mean to each other in this way?

Growing up, women are often told to "just be nice." Yet, nobody goes further to explain what that entails. Is there room in our culture for a woman to be assertive?

So often, women bite their tongues in fear of being seen as problematic, difficult to work with, or overly emotional, and therefore dismissed by their colleagues or peers. There are very few moments where women are allowed (or praised) to be visibly upset and/or straightforward with their issues.

In addition to being fearful of the consequences of direct communication, some simply don't have conflict resolution skills. If we were raised to avoid conflict altogether, then when we are faced with an opportunity to have things out, we may opt instead to aggress in dysfunctional ways.

There is also the issue of using this form of aggression because it's effective. If the goal is to make another woman feel inferior or unwanted, these kinds of psychological games will get the job done.

This can leave friendships unequipped and unprepared to deal with situations that require responsible conflict resolution, and those women then resort to mean-girl behaviors.

Think about a recent time that you excluded someone on purpose, gossiped, or gave someone silent treatment.

Why did you do it? Get genuinely curious about your behavior. Were you feeling threatened? Were your feelings hurt? Did you enjoy doing it? Did you feel powerful?

Ultimately, women have to begin thinking critically about why some female friendships tend to operate this way and what we can do to make better decisions.

Danielle Bayard Jackson explains this further in a recent episode of the Friend Forward podcast.

Listen here or click the image below:

Friend Forward Podcast - How To Have Difficult Conversation with a Friend

And in the meantime, if you're thinking about having a hard conversation with a friend who's been aggressing in this way with you, watch the video below for advice from our resident friendship expert Danielle Bayard Jackson (or click here to book a private session so you can get strategies that are specific to your unique situation!).


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