Covert aggression, otherwise known as relational aggression, is a behavior that seeks to harm a person by damaging their reputation or manipulating their relationships. This type of behavior is often linked with girls and woman, but men can be just as guilty of these actions.
In order the harm or damage the target, the aggressor will rely on passive-aggressive responses, pulling others into gossip, spreading lies or inaccurate information and portraying the target in a negative light. The purpose of these behaviors is to diminish the target’s position, to damage current or potential relationships and/or to tarnish their reputation.
This is unfortunately a situation that is seen often with divorce and in remarriage situations. During a divorce, one party may begin to harm the other by reaching out to family, friends, coworkers or neighbors in order to “get their story out”. The motive behind this is to paint the other in a negative light and to attempt to gain support and backing before the other is able to. This is often done in retaliation to an action, lashing out from pain or to right a sense of injustice. This situation can cause one of two outcomes: either the target regresses and pulls away from their support system in order to shield themselves, or they launch their own attack by responding with the same tactics. This scenario can continue long after the divorce with one or both individuals, and sometimes adding in new spouses.
Divorce isn’t the only time relational aggression can be seen. It’s often portrayed in the media as “mean girls” and can run deep in some families. Patterns of passive aggressive behaviors, side-taking behaviors or the tendency to hold on to grudges can create the perfect situation for relational aggression to thrive. Many times these behaviors or the targeting of one family member can continue for many years and cause division in a family. During the holiday season and at times of other large events such as a wedding, the effects of this behavior can be intensified and cause stress and anxiety.
If you find yourself the target of this type of aggression, remember that this has more to go with the aggressor than with your actions. When individuals live in unhealthy relational patterns, it can be difficult for them to see the outcome of their actions and how their behaviors can increase their own anxiety levels. These unhealthy patterns are often rooted in a persistent failure to bond and a need to feel heard or understood. Acting in aggressive ways towards others allow the person to feel in control or to gain a sense of power. Many evolutionary psychologists believe that while this behavior is more common in woman, it is not because woman are more aggressive by nature. Instead aggression is learned through childhood experiences and mirroring those around them. The aggression is a protective drive that surfaces throughout childhood and adolescence.
While some targets of relational aggression will respond in retaliation, it is most common that they will regress. Isolation from family and friends is a common symptom and is done as a way to self-protect. It’s important as a victim of this type of aggression to create a safe support system. Completely disengaging from everyone can result in depression or anxiety and it rarely stops the aggressor’s actions. Instead, selectively choosing those who you remain in contact with will help you to avoid isolation and the negative effects of it.
You may not be able to stop the aggressive behaviors of another person, but practicing self-care will allow you to move ahead without those behaviors influencing all aspects of your life. Focusing on the positive relationships around you and resisting the urge to retreat into isolation is the first step for self-healing in the midst of negative outside factors.