“Mean girls” last long past middle school. Just ask syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson.
The mailbox for her Ask Amy The column is often filled with complaints from women who feel they are being bullied or manipulated by other adult women and are at a loss as to what to do about it.
Think of the last letter from a woman who described a friend’s behavior as disrespectful but wondered how the friendship could be maintained. Dickinson recommended an important self-defense tactic: “Run”.
“I think there are times when we, especially women, are socialized to persevere, to unite,” says Dickinson, 62, who gets up to 300 emails a day from people seeking advice. “There are times when people should leave a relationship. If it was really bad and you’re being dominated and bullied, you should leave the relationship.”
It’s a strategy for countering what experts call “relational aggression” — not physical bullying like verbal belittling, malicious gossip, social ghosting, or online trolling. Several books in the early 2000s – including strange girl dating by Rachel Simmons; Queen Bees & Wannabes, by Rosalind Wiseman; and Mean girls grown upby Cheryl Dellasega – raised the issue of relational aggression among girls.
They mainly blamed society for encouraging women to appear nice while fighting “sneaky” as a character in the 2004 film mean girls describes it. Recent research shows a higher tendency in men to engage in overt aggression versus more passive approaches in women, but does not indicate whether it is due to cultural or biological causes, according to a 2018 study published by the National Institutes of Health.
That being said, there seems little doubt that some women are mean girls well into adulthood, causing problems at work, at volunteer gatherings, at the senior center, or at family gatherings. And it means that other women who might have hoped they’d put “queen bees” behind in middle school are still dealing with them in their 60s, 70s, and 80s
“We are not taught to be sisters. We are taught to measure ourselves,” says Linda McMurray, a licensed social worker in West Chester Township, Ohio. McMurray, 67, who worked for the US Department of Veterans Affairs and is now in private practice, has counseled all genders but especially sees the long-term effects of relational aggression among women, she says. She believes women’s competitiveness dates back to the days when they had to outmaneuver each other for advantageous marriages. But it’s still with us, she says
“This is stealth mode. It’s not physical duking. It’s something that’s very stealthy, very sneaky. Kind of calm,” she says.
But the behavior can have long-term effects, she adds. Some of the female McMurray counselors still struggle with the experiences of mean middle and high school girls, making it harder to confront bullying as adults
So how can you deal with mean girl behavior even as you get older? Here are 10 tips from the experts.