Covert: Secretive, not detected, hidden or existing out of view.
Abuse: Various ways, verbally, emotionally, psychologically or physically, to attack or inflict harm on another in such a way as to disrespect and invalidate another person’s humanity to whatever degree.
Bullying is a form of abuse, involving power over another through force, coercion or intimidation. It may be verbal, emotional, psychological or physical. In direct abuse or bullying, even if covert, it’s one on one. A person may have a smile on their face, but it’s them stabbing you in the back.
Relational aggression is a type of covert abuse that involves more than two people, at the very least three. Rather than or in addition to direct abuse — covert or otherwise — the relational aggressor strives to hurt a targeted person through other people. Relational aggression manipulates relationships to hurt another. It uses gossip, lies, rumors, teasing, alienation, censure and other means to achieve that end.
The Aggressor, is one who intimidates, controls and/or punishes a targeted person either directly, albeit covertly, or through other people. They initiate the abuse.
The Target is the intended recipient of the abuse, the one who stands in the line of the aggressor’s fire. In relational aggression, targets come under the direct fire of people other than the aggressor, as well. Targets of relational aggression often come from the aggressor’s immediate social circle, but not always. Like the aggressor, they come from a diversity of cultures, social and economic levels, as well as race, age and sex. They suffer the abuse.
Collaborators are those individuals in relational aggression who join the aggressor to harass or harm the target. They are the relationships through which the aggressor channels their negativity toward the target. A collaborator can start out as an active participant or initial bystander. They directly sustain the abuse.
Bystanders are those who do not actively participate in the aggression, but for a variety of reasons do not attempt to stop it either. They are the Silent Witnesses, often feeling powerless or even fearful to help. Many feel guilty over their inaction, struggling with it long after the aggression has stopped. They passively observe the abuse and by their inaction, indirectly sustain it.
And then you have the Enablers. A unique group of bystanders who can make a difference for the target by virtue of their status, are not afraid to, but don’t. They often receive some kind of benefit, either directly or indirectly, from the aggressor or collaborators by looking away or trivializing what little they’re willing to see. Enablers are not only bystanders but Silent Collaborators. Their relationship to those involved increases the significance of their responses or lack thereof. They condone the abuse and encourage the abusers.
Mind you, these roles are fluid. Unlike in movies that characterize relational aggression as a “girl thing” (which it is not — more on that later) that consists of mean girls and victim girls, in real life participants and instigators of relational aggression are wide and varied in who they are or can be.
These roles are actually fairly fluid between people and among the various types of people who step into them. At least in potential, the roles of relational aggression can be interchangeable at any given moment.
Covert abuse, whether one-on-one or relational, is equal opportunity. It’s an affliction of the human race.