It’s difficult to imagine a stepmother being the victim of bullying, particularly by her stepchildren. Relational aggression is a form of bullying used most often by females. It can happen to girls in grade school, teens in high school, young women in college and adult women in the workplace. These are the scenarios we would most likely imagine this kind of behavior taking place. However, if asked, a majority of stepmothers would likely tell you that they have experienced it in their own families.
Some of the weapons used by females include: gossiping, hostile body language (i.e., eye-rolling, glares, turning their backs), keeping secrets, silent treatment, belittling, shaming, mocking, whispering in front of the target and as a group, ignoring the target in a group setting.
The in-group will exchange knowing looks between themselves and offer the target blank stares. They will spread lies to paint the target in a negative light in an attempt to gain support from other family members. Secrets known about the target or told in confidence by the target are used as opportunities to criticize her. The goal is to hurt the target, devalue her and humiliate her.
Second wives are prime targets for relational aggression, particularly when they are married to men with older teen or adult daughters. There are often other adult females working behind the scenes to participate in and encourage the aggression, such as the biological mother, mother-in-law, sister-in-laws, cousins and nieces. Some stepdaughters model behaviors they’ve seen other adult females in their families use.
Once the relational aggression gets started, it can become the norm if the children were never taught appropriate behavior.
Motives for this aggression often include jealousy, fear, a desire for control, and hopes of derailing the competition.
Typically the target is on her own. Nobody in her husband’s family is going to come to her aid. Even if some family members don’t agree with the tactics being used, there will be little motivation for them to side with the stepmother and risk their existing relationships in their family members.
Often stepmothers feel disconnected from their husbands over these issues and have difficultly finding support from their friends who don’t deal with the conflict involved in stepfamilies. However, familial support is always available to stepchildren as they are allowed to dislike and resent their stepmothers.
It can be very difficult for a stepmother to change the dynamics in her family since the behaviors are easily denied. Covert hostile behavior is used to send messages to the target so that she knows she is being ostracized but would have a hard time proving it. It leaves the target with no way to defend herself without escalating the aggression and being branded as a trouble maker. The character assassination gets worse as she is accused of trying to cause problems between her husband and his children, of being jealous of them, being paranoid or having emotional problems.
Part of what makes relational aggression so appealing to women is how it brings them closer together. Badmouthing the second wife serves as a bonding ritual. It makes them a part of a group that they know the stepmother will never be a part of, giving them exclusive power to decide her fate in their family.
Family events can be miserable for stepmothers. Graduation ceremonies, Thanksgiving, weddings, Christmas, birthdays, funerals and vacations all serve are more opportunities to further isolate and shun the second wife. With no support, the lone stepmother is free game at these events to the collective group of aggressors.
The effects to the target can be devastating. Women can become depressed, withdrawn, develop anxiety, experience problems in their marriages, have difficulty with intimacy, question themselves, lose their self-respect and have a lowered self-esteem. Some have even reported physical reactions to relational aggression such as headaches, stomach pains, and loss of sleep.
The family members who use relational aggression to inflict pain will often continue their behavior until their target stands up for themselves, they no longer have contact with the target, or a person (hopefully the husband) of authority steps in and forces change.
For many stepmothers, confrontation is a scary proposition for a variety of reasons such as fearing that their husbands will side with the children, fear of divorce, or fear of facing the in-group’s retaliation. If a stepmother has children with her husband, protecting herself from his family’s covert war games might not be worth the possible split of her immediate family.
For those whose husbands are too reluctant to step in, disengaging is often a stepmother’s last resort. Removing herself as the target may mean her husband goes to his family events alone. Rather than seeking inclusion into her husband’s family, the second wife may stop trying or caring if her husband’s family accepts her.
Having peace, finding her self-respect, loving herself and prioritizing the things that bring joy to her life, her family and her marriage may become more important to her than attending family events where she knows she will be shunned.
Stepmothers are people too, who have the right to remove themselves from hurtful or abusive situations.