Student Wellness

Drop Shadow

Relational Aggression

What is Relational Aggression?

Relational aggression is covert aggressive behavior that is intended to harm someone by damaging or manipulating his or her relationships with others (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995).  Although relational aggression tends to be more common among females in female peer groups in childhood (Crick, 1995, 1996), in college, males tend to report using more peer reactive relational aggression (Lento-Zwolinski, 2007), and they tend to report more relational victimization by romantic partners (Lento, 2006).  Although relational aggression tends to be more common than physical aggression overall in college students, a number of shared and unique adjustment difficulties have been associated with both forms of aggression in young adults (Loudin, Loukas, & Robinson, 2003; Storch et al., 2004; Werner & Crick, 1999).

Two distinctions of relational aggression include proactive and reactive aggression:

  • Proactive behaviors are a means for achieving a goal (e.g. may need to exclude someone to maintain your own social status).
  • Reactive relational aggression is a defensive angry response to a perceived threat to social status.


What are Relationally Aggressive Behaviors?


  • Exclusion
  • Malicious gossip and rumor spreading
  • Alliance building
  • Cyberbullying

Some examples might include:

  • Guys belittling each other or cutting each other down because of a perceived threat to their status in their peer group
  • Starting “I hate _____” groups on MySpace or Facebook

 What Motivates Relational Aggression? 


  • Belonging – “If I share the secret she told me with you, my information can get me ‘in’ with the popular group.”
  • Fear – “I’m afraid of being rejected by my classmates, or that I’ll be the next target, so I go along with it.”
  • Drama – “I’m bored, and relational aggression creates drama and excitement.”
  • What Can You Do About Relational Aggression?

(SourcesDr. Jennifer Zwolinski & Dr. Veronica Galvan, University of San Diego, Department of Psychology and Cristina Grisham, University of San Diego, University Ministry)

While there is not a lot known about the treatment for someone who is a victim of relational aggression, there is a lot of literature and research on how to prevent relational aggression.  If you are a victim of this behavior, here are a few things you can do. 

  • Be aware of your reaction – Don’t have a big emotional reaction to the behavior in front of the perpetrator (that’s exactly what they want).  Also, don’t be passive aggressive and think that you’ll “get them back” in some other way.  This just perpetuates the cycle of relational aggression.
  • Be direct – Don’t avoid confrontation.  Speak to the person directly about how their behavior makes you feel.  Make sure to document (e.g. journal) each time you speak to the perpetrator and what outcome results from your conversation.
  • Get help – If you feel as though you’ve tried everything and you are still a victim of relational aggression, GET HELP.  Reach out to a Resident ssistant, Resident Minister, a member of the Counseling Center staff, or a trusted professor to help you deal with the effects of relational aggression.


  • Physical Overt Aggression
  • Harm through damage or threat of damage to another’s physical well-being (Crick and Grotpeter, 1995).
  • Verbal Aggression
  • Obvious and/or hidden verbal acts of aggression toward another person, such as threats, put-downs and name calling.

Information in this handout was provided by Jennifer Zwolinski, Ph.D. of the University of San Diego, The Ophelia Project, and other sources referenced above.