Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

2 Reasons Why Passive Aggressive Behavior Thrives in Relationships

Even in the best relationships, a little passive aggression always falls in.

My friend and neighbor shared this great story on my blog about the last time (the final time?) her husband agreed to do the family's grocery shopping:

I typically do all of the food shopping for my family. My husband appreciates this, as food shopping is one of his LEAST favorite domestic duties. As much as I try to avoid asking him to do it, there have been occasions when there was no other alternative.... so he reluctantly walks out the door, reusable grocery bags in-hand, and what does he come home with after an hour at the food store? (Keep in mind, I give him a very specific list.) After I sort through the 4 bags of chips and various other snack foods, I get the following: I asked for rice milk, he bought soy milk; I asked for swiss cheese, he bought American; I asked for wheat bread, he bought Texas Toast; I asked for whole wheat pancakes, he bought 4 boxes of Pop Tarts (OK! Who doesn't love Pop Tarts? But do they replace whole wheat pancakes? No.) The list goes on, but you get the point. Needless to say, I no longer ask him to go food shopping. I just don't have enough room in my pantry for more pop tarts.

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When I think of this friend and her husband, I think "happy couple." The woman is, in fact, my role model for honest, assertive communication. Yet, even in the healthiest relationships, a little passive aggression always seems to fall in. Why does compliant defiance thrive in most marriages? Here are two subversive reasons:

Passive Aggressive Behavior Is the Path to Least Resistance

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger. The chronically passive aggression person expresses anger through such indirect means as procrastination, sulking, "forgetting" and intentional inefficiency across most situations, almost all of the time.  et even those who are normally honest and direct in their dealings may choose to behave in passive aggressive ways at certain times.

In marriages, husbands and wives often use passive aggressive behavior as the path of least resistance. In other words, a person wants to say "no" to a request, but realizes that doing so will likely result in an immediate disagreement or confrontation. To avoid the temporary unpleasantness, a partner verbally agrees to a request but behaviorally delays its completion or-more crafty yet-carries out the task according to unacceptable standards (e.g. Pop Tart excess) in hopes of not being asked to carry out the request in the future. Fortunately, situation-specific passive aggressive behavior in a marriage, though infuriating in the moment, is usually quite manageable when confronted directly and consistently.

Passive Aggressive Behavior Is a Habit

For some, passive aggressive behavior is not just a situational choice, but rather a deeply ingrained personality type. When a child is raised in an environment in which the expression of angry feelings is not tolerated, he learns to use indirect, passive aggressive means to express himself.  In marriage, this adult child overgeneralizes and responds to his spouse as if she were the parent who stifled his emotional expression. Genuinely-loved partners become undeserving targets of ingrained passive aggressive habits and are especially hurt, confused, and frustrated to receive it. The relationship is often brought to the boiling point.

Another aspect that makes passive aggression particularly toxic in a marriage is how it is modeled to the next generation. Children of passive aggressive parents learn the indirect expression of anger as a way of life. They grow up with the belief that "anger = bad" and that hiding anger is the right, healthy, proper thing to do. Chronic passive aggression can be just as damaging to a marriage and family as outward aggression and requires focused efforts at long-term behavioral change.

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.

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