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The “Mean Girls Phenomenon” in Marriage?

The “mean girls” phenomenon is a topic of high interest right now.  It is being highlighted in TV shows, news broadcasts and magazines alike.  However as a society we are primarily focusing on this phenomenon in adolescent girls.  What happens when these girls get married?  Do they put a ring on their finger and their habits disappear?

The “mean girls phenomenon” is a popular term for something called relational aggression.  Relational aggression in its simplest terms is a way to manipulate a relationship.   The most popular ways in which to manipulate these relationships is to sabotage the other person socially or withdraw love.  Now let me explain, in marriage this love withdraw could look like, “I won’t have sex with you until you do (insert chore here) for me”.  Social sabotage includes a spouse sabotaging or spreading a rumor about their spouse in order for the spouse to change in the relationship.  These two behaviors are destructive to any relationship and recently **research findings have indicated that this phenomenon is quite common in marriage, that both men and women participate in it and that it is incredibly destructive to marital happiness and stability.  Meaning this phenomenon that everyone is talking about is not limited to our female teens, but becomes a potential relationship destroyer.

So why does this behavior continue into marriage?  We are habitual people.  When something works in relationships (healthy or unhealthy) people tend to continue doing it.   So how can we break the habit?

Ways to break the habit…

Like any bad habit, relational aggression is a difficult one to stop.  However just like any habit it is possible if you set your mind to it.  Often times people do not realize they are using relational aggression to accomplish goals in their relationships.  Therefore, the first step is to ask yourself what you say to your spouse when you want them to do something?  What happens if they do not, or will not do it?  Does your interaction change?

The second step is to ask yourself why you use relational aggression.  What is feeding the need to manipulate your spouse?  Do you believe your spouse will do something out of love, or does manipulation need to be a factor?  Understanding why you use relational aggression allows you to discover possible personal insecurities, or interaction patterns you have grown accustom to.

So what do you do once you have recognized and begun to understand your use of relational aggression?  You talk to your spouse about it.  This may be terrifying for people who have been using this tactic their whole lives, but talking to your spouse gives you someone to be accountable to (and they are probably the best detector when you are using the behavior).

Once your desire has been expressed you and your spouse can brainstorm other ways to express yourself and deliver messages to each other.  As you fill your relationship with more positive interactions, being honest and working as a team toward this new goal, the relationship can be strengthened.   However another important step to remember is forgiveness.  Like most habits there will be the occasional slip up which requires forgiving yourself.  Recognze the effort you are making toward a healthier relationship and learn from the mistake, but allow yourself to continue forward.   Last but not least, try to remember that the effort you put toward breaking this habit now will create a more honest and more cohesive relationship in the future.

*For further information on positive interaction patterns and communication look for my subsequent posts!

**Carroll, J. S., Nelson, D. A., Yorgason, J. B., Harper, J. M., Ashton, R. H., & Jensen, A. C. (2010). Relational aggression in marriage.  Aggressive Behavior, 36, 315-329.

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