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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  • 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:-)…