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What is Relational Aggression?

By Donn Saylor
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Relational aggression is a type of aggressive behavior that employs social skills — usually within a group — to inflict nonphysical pain on an individual or individuals. There are several different types of relational aggression: betrayal, exclusion or solitude, gossip, humiliation, and lies. Also known as covert aggression or covert bullying, this type of psychological abuse is most prevalent among adolescent and teenage girls.

The historical roots of relational aggression are as old as time itself. Folklore, legends, literature, and movies have been produced on the subject. The term "relational aggression" was devised by two researchers at the University of Minnesota in 1995; it has since become widely utilized as the definitive name for psychological aggression in social settings that does not include physical abuse.

The types of relational aggression illustrate the extent to which this behavior can negatively impact a victim's life. The betrayal form of the behavior takes shape when those inflicting the abuse go back on promises or renege on agreements with the victim. In the exclusion or solitude form, the victim is prohibited, through bullying and intimidation, from interacting with the instigator's social circle, thereby shunning the victim. The gossip type of relational aggression entails the abuser divulging intimate details about the victim, which goes hand in hand with humiliation, wherein the instigator disgraces and embarrasses the victim in front of other people. With the lies form of relational aggression, the abuser spins fabricated tales about the victim and maliciously spread this information to others as fact.

Relational aggression can be linked to various psychological disorders. Because there is no physical violence involved, it is similar in nature to passive-aggressive behavior, but, when occurring within the home, it could also be classified as a form of nonphysical domestic violence. It is, at its heart, a form of psychological manipulation that can destroy the lives of young people and produce lasting psychological trauma.

There are several warning signs of relational aggression in victims. If a young person becomes depressed, drops out of his or her social circle, or starts avoiding other people, he or she may be a victim of relational aggression. Further red flags might entail a gradually elevated level of hostility, patterns of adamant denial, and even Stockholm syndrome, in which a victim begins to identify with his or her abuser. Experts often state that just because a young person says he or she is not being abused does not mean that this is necessarily the case. Parents are encouraged to use their best judgment when determining whether their child is a victim of relational aggression.

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