Understanding The Psychology of Relational Aggression In Adults: Unraveling The Stories We Choose and the Sociology Behind Them


Understanding the psychology of relationally aggressive adults and what it has to do with storytelling is a long winded look into history and sociology. Have you ever been excluded, isolated, targeted or gossiped about in your friend group, workplace, or living environment? What do you think triggered it and how did you cope? To further delve into this topic, we can look at understanding relational aggression in adults through history, philosophy, psychology, sociology and storytelling. 

We often associate bullying to childhood experiences but these behaviors don’t melt away as we age. So what happens to them? Sometimes we get tired of them and we abandon them for a more peaceful existence. Nevertheless, this is not everyone. In some people, these behaviors simply transform. We all experience feelings of hurt, inadequacy, envy, jealousy, and agitation from time to time and we choose how we process them in a productive way. However, for some individuals who neglect to confront these feelings, a sort of alchemy occurs where behaviors become less outwardly hurtful and more micro-aggressive. Aggression becomes subversive and is diluted in the stories we tell ourselves, in the stories we tell others, and in the reasons why we tell them.

Relational aggression (also known as “alternative aggression”) is an indirect form of social bullying whereby the aggressor attempts to isolate their targets by attacking their reputation and relationships using rumors, gossip, exclusion and social manipulation. In other words, it is a “non-physical” form of bullying that is common among adolescences and pervasive among adults–in our work places, in our friend groups, and in our communities. Unlike physical harm, relational aggression is indirect–making it more convenient as it is less likely to get noticed.

An aggressor might, for example, not openly voice the root of their aggression directly to their target…But they might attempt to defame the target, send strong social cues that indicate their dislike and plant the suggestion that others should exclude the target based on a fabricated narrative that is meant to discredit or cause harm to their target’s relationships. 

Let’s be honest, none of us is perfect… but none of us really has to be perfect to be treated with decency and compassion. So we must be honest about the internal psychology that drives us to be indirect aggressors. 

We all know this but still, we find reasons to justify unnecessary nitpicking that sound like, “I just don’t like her.”, “They think they’re better.”, “They’re replacing me because they’re successful now.”, “Who do they think they are?”, “What world do they think they’re living in?”, “They’re too much.” So on and so forth. Do these sound familiar to you?

In adulthood, we often preface the stories we paint about others with “it’s nothing against them but…” or “I just feel that…” simply because it’s easier to target individuals when we’re framed as the victim. It is important to note that it does not matter what the reasoning or impression is. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, no one deserves to be isolated from others or denigrated while their backs are turned. Aggressors seek allies by framing their poor treatment of others in a deserved way. Nevertheless, it’s the actions that we must pay attention to and address—not the reasons.

Understanding The Stories We Choose and Why We Choose Them

According to Brene Brown, when we struggle, we fall pray to false stories which impact our neurology. How we perceive those around us when we’re not at our best catalyzes a story and that story is rewarded by our brains regardless of whether or not it is factually true. Figuring out the internal feelings and motivations that catalyze what we tell ourselves about other people and situations can have a positive impact on our own psychology as well as our relationships with others, and it can prevent us from unnecessarily treating others poorly. It is up to us to take ownership for our stories and assess how reasonable they are in reality. The process of assuming responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and inner narratives for further evaluation is something that Brown calls reckoning.

Similarly, relational aggression is fueled by the narratives we make up about others (regardless of whether or not we believe in them). When we place others under a microscopic lens and create meanings or intentions for every behavior, what we’re really doing is obsessing and deflecting from unresolved issues within. Gossip usually attempts to tell us the story of an individual but it also tells us a lot about the person who’s gossiping. Sometimes the stories we use to sabotage the targets of our relational aggression are convenient and comforting because they frame our character in a better light, while also attacking the targets in a way that is subversive and hard to detect.

Other times, we genuinely believe in our own stories as though they were delusions as a way to insist upon finding fault, so that our behavior toward undeserving persons feels justified. These stories–though just words and rumors– have a tremendous psychological impact on our neurology and an even more damaging impact on those we are intending to harm indirectly.  

Beware of People Playing The Victim–Nietzsche

Playing the victim is an act of manipulation used to influence the behaviors of others for our own benefit.

This is not to be confused with actual victimhoodwhereby persons are taken advantage of and hurt.

Rather, when we actively “play the victim”, we assume the role of a victim when we consciously or subconsciously are victimizing others for our own personal reasons through guilt, obligation, shame, and disgust. We might assume this role to justify our own behavior toward others or to avoid taking ownership for the ways in which we’re limiting ourselves. We won’t outwardly show aggression as we’re deeply engrossed in our story.

If we want to believe in something, no matter how farfetched it is, we will find a way and a reason. Stories are essential in this area of our psychology. We might be hyper-viligant and take a microscope to the mannerisms of those we create stories about, to the way they maintain eye contact or lack thereof, to their shortcomings, messages, their social media and we might patch together the subterfuge we need to justify and more importantly to feel justified in our reasons for causing others harm and not taking responsibility for ourselves. We create the role and the story that helps us achieve the social outcome we desire and sometimes that means framing ourselves as the victim.

However, instead of making our inner turmoil about others, we can have greater mileage in preserving our relationships when we take accountability for our unresolved feelings and stories that are causing interpersonal harm and communicate our unmet needs at the root. Attempting to be right in the eyes of others (especially in instances where we are blatantly wrong) is a disservice to ourselves.

Admitting wrong is self-liberating and disarming to those we are in relationships with. This is the first step to building authentic trust and learning to communicate our needs in a way that is healthy, relatable, reasonable and doesn’t lead us down the path to eventual guilt.

Leveling and the Concept of Social Propinquity

The fact of the matter is, exclusion, isolation and gossip are not the same as indifference. Isolation, gossip, and exclusion are targeted and focused aggressions. It requires effort and methodology to express a message of provocation to the receiver and to initiate competition. But where does this behavior come from and why?

Leveling out the playing field. The psychology of comparison and keeping things “leveled” is often to blame. It has to do with proximity–otherwise known as propinquity in psychology.  It is easy to dote on someone who is nowhere near our social proximity (physically, socially, emotionally, financially, etc). It is easy to love someone that we do not feel we are in competition with–someone who isn’t a perceived threat. It is easier to support people at their worst more than when they’re dong well. It is easier to support your favorite actor than it is to support your friend who just got their first big film opportunity.

Bertrand Russel said ‘Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.’ Psychologists pose that this might be responsible for why our friends turn on us. When someone vastly different from us (whether it be in a positive or negative light) is perceived to be doing well–we have an easier time grappling with their success. However, if someone in our immediate social propinquity is perceived to be doing well, it is harder for some to accept and can sometimes even be perceived as a full-out betrayal.

Displaced Aggression

The brain is a complex labryinth with many twists and turns. It knows when we’re being demoralized and it knows which people won’t stand up. Displaced aggression directs our inner hostility away from the need for reflective confrontation and away from the original source of the hostility and it instead, redirects it onto targets that will most likely not retaliate. Perhaps they don’t retaliate out of love or perhaps they don’t retaliate because they’re vulnerable. Our subconscious minds couldn’t care less.

Sigmund Freud posits that if a man were strongly criticized by his boss, he would most likely not stand up to confront his boss, but might take it out on others who are safe and won’t defend themselves. We intuitively know whose favor we can’t risk losing and we intuitively know which safe individuals we can take unnecessary liberties with. Displaced aggression is often a manifestation of our willingness to take unnecessary liberties with people who aren’t likely to defend themselves (friends, family and vulnerable people) because we’ve failed to process our hurt and we’re afraid of the social ramifications that come with confronting whoever and whatever is the source of it.

 “But why do relationally aggressive people have so many allies?”– You might be asking! 

Social Identity Theory: In-Group, Out-Group Psychology 

The reasons we always choose as why others side with bullies and relational aggressors is “fear of our friends” and “fear of losing our friends”. In other words, we have a fear of being in the “out-group”. Since our tribal days, being a part of the community, being integrated and essential meant our survival. Human beings were less likely to survive if they were left by the group to fend for themselves. Nowadays, people in isolation are prone to heart illness, depression, dementia and a plethora of other psychological and health issues.

Psychologically, one of the catalysts for groupthink, is fear of being an outlier. People often are willing to ignore reality for the sake of agreeing. Being united against a common cause means you are in the “in-group”.  This psychology and sociological behavior plays right into relational aggression perfectly. We love to hate when we have someone to do it with especially when we’re afraid of being alone. It keeps us from feeling unsupported and lonely, and helps us to feel more socially superior, secure, as well as integrated–even at the detriment of our morals… More importantly, at the detriment of those who do not deserve it.

Relational Aggressions Are an Indirect Conduit For Other People’s Internalized Resentment

Beware of vicarious participation! Sometimes all it takes is the right story and the right pair of ears. Envy is not a comfortable feeling especially when we know the target doesn’t deserve our resentment. However, when one person’s story is met with another person’s unchecked envy, one friend’s relational aggression toward another can grant us permission to validate our deepest feelings of resentment without feeling guilt.

When a relationally aggressive person is able to appeal to our own unprocessed envy, we’re more prone to being swayed and more likely to feel that we’ve been given permission to inflict harm on others as a projection and deflection of the discomfort that envy has caused us internally. So we will likely enable the outwardly vicious friend if we feel like the target of their aggression also makes us feel threatened. In a way, it becomes a vicarious arrangement. More importantly, if the story we’ve heard about the target is good enough or convenient to grasp at, there’s no need to feel bad about how we treat them– after all, they “deserve it”, right?!



We often hear that an idle mind is the devil’s playground. Sometimes when people cannot make exciting conversation or have an absence of experience and personal interest to draw upon, they turn to nitpicking others instead. When you’re bored, gossip looks more appealing. It’s a way to keep the conversation going with others and stay entertained! Most times, the busier we are, the less time we have to gossip and the less patience we have for gossip.

When we feel that our lives are enough, we don’t feel the need to sabotage someone else’s… and typically those who “hate drama” truly aren’t the ones who have to say so vocally–they simply don’t allow themselves to get caught up in unnecessary and easily avoidable interpersonal conflict.





Madrid-based traveler, visual and performing artist, and content writer.

2 comments On Understanding The Psychology of Relational Aggression In Adults: Unraveling The Stories We Choose and the Sociology Behind Them

  • Cynthia Ann Brady-Hall

    Sydney this is a fascinating read. I really believe you are so intuitive about what is happening in our world today. You have me at hello! I love it please keep writing. you are a natural ay writing. Everything is fluid and understandable and extremely relatable.

  • Cynthia Ann Brady-Hall

    Sorry I should’ve edited!!!

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