“Mean girls” endure long beyond middle school. Just ask syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson.
The mailbox for her Ask Amy column is often loaded with complaints from women feeling bullied or manipulated by other adult women and flummoxed as to what to do about it.
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Consider the recent letter from a woman who described a friend’s behavior as disrespectful but wondered how to preserve the friendship. Dickinson recommended an important self-defense tactic: “Run.”
“I think there are times when we, especially women, are socialized to hang in there, to come to an understanding,” says Dickinson, 62, who gets up to 300 emails a day from advice-seekers. “There are times when people should leave a relationship. If it’s been really bad and you’re being dominated and bullied, you should leave the relationship.”
That is one strategy for facing what experts call “relational aggression” — nonphysical bullying such as verbal put-downs, malicious gossip, social ghosting or online trolling. Several books in the early 2000s — including Odd Girl Out, by Rachel Simmons; Queen Bees & Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman; and Mean Girls Grown Up, by Cheryl Dellasega — raised the issue of relational aggression among girls.
They mostly blamed society for encouraging women to seem nice while fighting “sneaky,” as a character in the 2004 film Mean Girls describes it. Recent research finds a higher tendency in men toward overt aggression versus more passive approaches in women, but doesn’t indicate whether it’s cultural or biological, according to a study published in 2018 by the National Institutes of Health.
That said, there seems to be little question that some women continue to be mean girls far into adulthood, creating issues at work, volunteer meetings, the senior center or family gatherings. And it means other women, who may have hoped they left “queen bees” behind in middle school, are still dealing with them in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
“We’re not taught to be sisters. We’re taught to compete,” says Linda McMurray, a licensed social worker in West Chester Township, Ohio. McMurray, 67, who worked for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and is now in private practice, has counseled all genders but particularly sees the longtime effects of relational aggression among women, she says. She believes women’s competitiveness hearkens back to the days when they had to outmaneuver each other for advantageous marriages. But it’s still with us, she says.
“It’s stealth mode. It’s not physical duking it out. It’s something that’s very stealthy, very sneaky. Sort of quiet,” she says.
But the behavior can have long-term effects, she adds. Some of the women McMurray counsels still struggle with the experience of mean girls from middle and high school, making it more difficult to confront bullying behavior as adults.
So how can you deal with mean girl behavior even as you age? Here are 10 tips from the experts.