Relational aggression in the form of maternal gatekeeping


Relational aggression

Human aggressive behavior is any intentional causation of harm to others, and increasingly severe acts of aggression can represent even violence (Anderson & Bushman, 2002). Anderson and Bushman (2002) distinguish between instrumental and hostile aggression, the former being a means to reach a goal and the latter being a reactive impulse to harm an opponent. Relational aggression, as defined by Oka, Brown, and Miller (2016), constitutes a specialty of emotional (vs. physical) aggression that involves third parties, such as is the case of social sabotage, to damage relationships and hurt the victim through the unfulfilled need of belonging in those relationships.

Bilateral partner aggression and maternal gatekeeping

The discussion of the feminist concept of domestic violence and more recently intimate partner violence (IPV) (Ferreira & Buttell, 2016) is today more involving psychological considerations and is questioning the socially perpetuated view of a rather one-sided female victimization (Espinoza & Warner, 2016). Zimmermann’s (2016) review of research has found evidence that partner aggression is bilateral and Bantekas (2016) is reproaching the legal system of having adopted an uncritical assumption that mothers are naturally and socially predestined to be the (sole) caregivers for a couple’s children, which doesn’t base on scientific findings. Although a family’s benefit from paternal involvement in child rearing has been demonstrated, “maternal gatekeeping” has persisted to be a controlling practice by mothers hindering the participation of the children’s fathers (Hauser, 2012). The traditional role of the mother is increasingly taken over by fathers too (Sodermans, Botterman, Havermans, & Matthijs, 2015). Neither women nor man can escape the influence of society’s family concept, why women may still strongly identify with a culturally shaped maternal role (Radcliffe & Cassell, 2015). Cannon, Schoppe-Sullivan, Mangelsdorf, Brown, and Sokolowski (2008) suggest that modern beliefs about the father’s role may prevent maternal gatekeeping. Maternal gatekeeping practice may be a reaction to a father’s little involvement (Hauser, 2012) or the reason (Kulik & Sadeh, 2015) for a quantitatively limited relationship between father and child, for example as a result of interparental conflicts (Stevenson et al., 2014) or perceived insecure partner attachment (Ma, Chen, Zhang, Ma, & Ran, 2017).

Psychological theories

There are incoherent findings from a biological perspective, as for example that peptide hormones oxytocin (OT) could explain mammalian social behavior such as aggression (Campbell, 2008). Albeit the general aggression model (GAM) is recognizing personal characteristics such as personality traits, genetic conditions, and sex as input for psychological processes (Anderson & Bushman, 2002), Ferguson and Dyck (2012) reject GAM’s high social learning focus and instead propose the emphasis on diathesis-stress and gene-by-environment interactions. Bakermans-Kranenburg and van IJzendoorn (2015) describe the differential susceptibility hypothesis, which is a further development of the diathesis-stress model, as an explanation for the link between genetic variations and environmental factors, such as stressful life experiences.

As for psychological factors, research poses that maternal interparental aggression mirrors frustration and control desire related to relationship issues, such as economics, adultery, or marital collaboration (Nomaguchi, Johnson, Minter, & Aldrich, 2017). Velotti, Elison, and Garofalo (2014) found that the responses to shame may be crucial for triggering antisocial and aggressive behavior too.

Possible interventions

In response to the complexity of addressing aggressive behavior McGuire’s (2008) points to multi-modal probabilistic intervention approaches. Helping couples to understand their attitude toward psychological partner control and the learning of strategies to avoid defending responses that lead to aggressive behavior (Graham-Kevan & Archer, 2008), may account for the relevance of family systems and gender theories at the same time (Pedersen, 2016).



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Bakermans-Kranenburg, M., & van IJzendoorn, M. (2015). The Hidden Efficacy of Interventions: Gene x Environment Experiments from a Differential Susceptibility Perspective. Annual Review Of Psychology, Vol 66, 66381-409.

Bantekas, I. (2016). Discrimination against Fathers in Greek Child Custody Proceedings: Failing the Child’s Best Interests null [article]. International Journal Of Children’s Rights, (2), 330.

Campbell, A. (2008). Review: Attachment, aggression and affiliation: The role of oxytocin in female social behavior. Biological Psychology, 771-10. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.09.001

Espinoza, R., & Warner, D. (2016). Where Do We Go from here?: Examining Intimate Partner Violence by Bringing Male Victims, Female Perpetrators, and Psychological Sciences into the Fold. Journal Of Family Violence, 31(8), 959-966. doi:10.1007/s10896-016-9881-4

Ferguson, C. J., & Dyck, D. (2012). Paradigm change in aggression research: The time has come to retire the General Aggression Model. Aggression And Violent Behavior, 17220-228. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2012.02.007

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Graham-Kevan, N., & Archer, J. (2008). Does Controlling Behavior Predict Physical Aggression and Violence to Partners?. Journal Of Family Violence, 23(7), 539-548.

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Ma, Y., Chen, X., Zhang, X., Ma, H., & Ran, G. (2017). Do attachment patterns predict aggression in a context of social rejection? An executive functioning account. Aggressive Behavior, doi:10.1002/ab.21700

McGuire, J. (2008). A review of effective interventions for reducing aggression and violence. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 363(1503), 2577–2597.

Nomaguchi, K., Johnson, W. L., Minter, M. D., & Aldrich, L. (2017). Clarifying the Association Between Mother-Father Relationship Aggression and Parenting. Journal Of Marriage & Family, 79(1), 161-178. doi:10.1111/jomf.12354

Oka, M., Brown, C. C., & Miller, R. B. (2016). Attachment and Relational Aggression: Power as a Mediating Variable. American Journal Of Family Therapy, 44(1), 24-35. doi:10.1080/01926187.2015.1105716

Pedersen, D. (2016). Quantity and Quality: A More Nuanced Look at the Association Between Family Work and Marital Well-Being. Marriage And Family Review, 1-26. doi:10.1080/01494929.2016.1177632

Radcliffe, L. )., & Cassell, C. ). (2015). Flexible working, work-family conflict, and maternal gatekeeping: The daily experiences of dual-earner couples. Journal Of Occupational And Organizational Psychology, 88(4), 835-855. doi:10.1111/joop.12100

Sodermans, A. K., Botterman, S., Havermans, N., & Matthijs, K. (2015). Involved Fathers, Liberated Mothers? Joint Physical Custody and the Subjective Well-Being of Divorced Parents. Social Indicators Research, 122(1), 257-277. doi:

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Velotti, P., Elison, J., & Garofalo, C. (2014). Shame and Aggression: Different Trajectories and Implications. Aggression And Violent Behavior, 19(4), 454-461.

Zimmermann, A. (2016). The denial of female domestic violence. Quadrant, 60(7/8), 54.

About mathias sager

Welcome to the 'Happy Colorful Growth' way of life I am thinking and writing for happiness, painting colorfully, and enabling personal growth for all. If people can be touched at the heart level, peace will ensue. I value co-operative and humanitarian principles, economic and social equality, as well as environmental sustainability. Important personal characteristics are my broad international experience and progressive, egalitarian and global outlook, as well as my social commitment.
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11 Responses to Relational aggression in the form of maternal gatekeeping

  1. So much information in this marvelous post. Thank you for sharing with all of us

  2. Akhila says:

    Read it two -three times.. still I couldn’t understand it fully.. thinking on those oxytocin effects.. is that really possible

    • Hi Akhila. Thanks for your question! Yeah, that’s why I also wrote these are “incoherent” findings. In any case though, osytocin is identified as regulating the bonds with offspring and mates, what includes potential aggressive behavior for the protection of these relationships (Campbell, 2008). Looking at the current research, I think social learning is much more important than biological explanations though. In minimum we human beings are able to overrun many genetic and hormone programs by (socially learned) reason:-)…

  3. Patty says:

    Interesting again, Mathias.

  4. Pingback: Sad Dad – mathiassager

  5. cindy knoke says:

    PAS (Parental Alienation Syndrome) one parent demonizing another in a divorce is a very damaging form of child abuse.

    • mathias sager says:

      Hi Cindy. I agree. Thank you for bringing up this term and concept. I was just looking for that, so, very helpful!

  6. Pingback: Recognizing the ‘Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)’

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