Relational bullies work to gain social status and power through the exclusion and manipulation of others. (Espelage & Swearer, 2004) They are bullies by opportunity who torment others as a way of elevating themselves. To relational bullies, bullying is nothing personal. It’s viewed as more of a tool – a method of building social status or destroying those they see as potential rivals.
The incidence of relational bullying has exploded in recent years, increasing in lock-step with a media culture that glorifies this type of behavior. From shows like survivor, which encourage contestants to lie and manipulate their peers in order to win the game, to other sitcoms and reality TV shows that are packed with social hostility, relational aggression is routinely portrayed as a normal and acceptable way to jockey for social position.
The mindset of relational bullies
“I guess, for want of a friend, girls are willing to hurt anyone and don’t care what stands in their way.” – Kiana, age 12 (Wiseman, 2009, p. 22)
Relational bullies seldom see anything wrong with their behavior, and are usually the last to recognize anything they do as bullying. They tend to see the world as a cut-throat place, and subscribe to an anything goes mentality when it comes to getting ahead. Being mean and crushing others when it suits your needs is merely “how the game is played.” Therefore they feel they have nothing to apologize for, no matter how hurtful or malicious their behavior.
Relational bullies generally hold little empathy for their victims. In fact, they may look at such kids with downright disgust or consider them “weak.” They are youth who tend to hold social morals in low regard, considering such things mere formalities that only suckers ascribe to. Relational bullies are frequently kids who score high on narcissism scales, and may be outright sociopaths. The Phoebe Prince bullies could be best described as relational bullies – kids who bullied out of a perceived threat to their social status (Phoebe had the nerve to date a popular boy), and seemed utterly unapologetic and entirely without empathy when it came to concern about what damage their actions might have caused. (Phoebe committed suicide.)
The other type of relational bullying
So relational bullies tend to be sociopaths and narcissists – except when they aren’t. Relational bullying also commonly arises out of feuds between kids who aren’t bullies by nature, so it may be difficult to distinguish this type of situational bullying from the more sinister kind.
Relational bullying of the incidental variety generally arises when kids who were former friends (or lovers) have a falling out, and things turn ugly. Like two bitter divorcees, they go at each other relentlessly, often dragging other youth into it as well. The feud escalates to the point that each party is committing despicable acts and engaging in behavior that any outsider would recognize as bullying, though those involved may not see it as such.
Though the tactics may appear the same to an outsider, there is a world of difference between the bullies in this situation and the ones discussed prior. In this case, those involved aren’t bullying out of manipulation or personal gain, but out of hurt. They’re not kids who make a habit of picking on others, but are lashing out in response to a festering wound.
Occasionally this type of bullying can be a one-sided; one partner in the former friendship feels especially hurt and resorts to bullying as a means of revenge, sort of like an ex-husband (or wife) turned stalker. Or both kids may feel hurt, but because one child responds to this hurt by internalizing (depression, withdrawing, etc.) and the other externalizing (aggression, anger), this results in one side doing the bullying while the other is a passive victim. Yet in most instances it’s a tit-for-tat situation where both sides trade barbs and bully each other.