mean girlWho is mean to other people? What kinds of people get treated most cruelly? “Mean Girls” is not just a part of our popular culture — it is a topic that professional psychologists actually study.

When researchers first started studying aggression, they mostly studied physical aggression. More recently, they have recognized how mean people can be to one another without ever lifting a finger. “Relational aggression” is the term psychologists use to refer to the ways we purposefully hurt other people in our various relationships.

Sadly, there are countless ways we can hurt the ones we love – and I don’t just mean romantic partners. We can hurt friends by ostracizing them, gossiping about them, and ending the friendship. We can hurt romantic partners by cheating on them and withholding intimacy.

In a study published in the most recent issue of the journal Personal Relationships, Sara Goldstein asked 479 undergraduates (93% heterosexual) to complete a set of questionnaires asking about their relational aggression toward friends and romantic partners. Here are some examples of the items they answered:

  • “I give my romantic partner the silent treatment when s/he hurts my feelings in some way.”
  • “I have hooked up with someone else as a way of getting back at my romantic partner.”
  • “I have intentionally ignored a person until they gave me my way about something.”

Participants were also asked whether they were bothered by other relationships that their friends or romantic partners had. These kinds of questions assessed their expectations for exclusivity.

So who got treated the meanest? Romantic partners. Both the men and the women reported being meaner to their romantic partners than to their friends. (Keep in mind, though, that the items measuring aggression toward romantic partners were different from the items about friends.)

For women, the difference was even bigger than it was for men. They showed even more relational aggression toward their romantic partners than men did, and just a shade less aggression toward their friends. (That difference was not at all significant.)

Both the men and the women who wanted exclusivity in their relationships were the most aggressive. Maybe it is not so surprising that this happened in the context of romantic relationships, but it happened within friendships, too. People who were most bothered by the other relationships their friends had were meanest to those friends.

The author could only speculate as to why both the men and the women were meaner to their romantic partners than to their friends. One of her suggestions was that young adults may be more sensitive to perceived slights within romantic relationships than in friendships.

My guess is that the explanation has something to do with the differences between friendships and romantic relationships. Often, we expect to have just one romantic relationship at a time – at least if it is a committed one. It is different with friendships. Our friends are “the ones,” not “The One.” Typically, we have more than one friend, and we expect our friends to have other friends besides us.

If you have a romantic partner, and that person behaves badly, you may be more inclined to lash out at that person than you would at a friend. Perhaps having other friends cushions the blow of the bad behavior of any one friend.

Or maybe it is a matter of closeness. When you are just as close to a friend as to a romantic partner, then maybe your friend’s insensitivity would hurt just as much as your romantic partner’s, and you would be just as likely to be mean to your friend. Maybe it is the people who are closest to their friends who are most bothered by their friends’ other relationships, and that’s why they can be mean even to those friends.

What do you think?


Goldstein, S. E. (2011). Relational aggression in young adults’ friendships and romantic relationships. Personal Relationships, 18, 645-656.

Young woman photo available from Shutterstock.