Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

Four Common Phrases that Let You Know Your Spouse Is Being Passive Aggressive

Fine. Whatever. And other signs of passive aggression in a marriage.

Do you regularly leave a "Honey Do" that your spouse routinely ignores? Are emotionally-charged conversations often shut down with the words "Fine" and "Whatever?" If you and your partner communicate anger and hostility through undone errands and botched chores, then passive aggression might be the third wheel in your marriage.

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger. It involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). While some parents believe that squashing anger is the "socially appropriate" thing to do for the sake of the children, unexpressed anger in the long run is destructive to intimacy in a marriage and a poor model of self-expression.  Do you recognize any of these passive aggressive phrases in your marriage?

I'm Not Mad

Passive aggression is motivated by a person's fear that his life will get worse if others know about his anger. To mask his feelings, the passive aggressive person relies on denial. Even when questioned directly about the emotions that his body language and angry smile often betray, a passive aggressive person will insist, "I'm not mad" rather than seize the opportunity to communicate in a direct and emotionally honest way.

Whatever

Sulking and withdrawing from arguments are primary strategies of the passive aggressive person. Rather than talk about what is bothering him, the passive aggressive person uses phrases like "Fine" and "Whatever" to shut down communication and repress anger. The damage to the relationship occurs because there is nothing more powerful than an unexpressed thought over time.

I'll Take Care of It

Weekend "To Do" lists are a common source of resentment in families. No one relishes the thought of doing chores, yet everyone knows that in order to maintain a home and keep a family running smoothly, there are certain tasks that each family member must accomplish. To keep the (short-term) peace, a passive aggressive person verbally complies with task lists and chore requests, but behaviorally delays their completion. By procrastinating, postponing, and stalling, the passive aggressive person avoids getting into arguments but succeeds in frustrating others.

I Didn't Know What You Meant
For those passive aggressive spouses who want to take their hidden hostility to the next level, intentional inefficiency is the name of the game. Forget procrastination-performing chores in a timely but unacceptable manner is often a much more effective (and lasting) strategy for discharging anger in an indirect way and never being asked to perform that specific chore again. For example:

• Tom is watching football on TV when his wife asks him to run to the grocery store for a few staple items. She hands him a list. He agrees to go and turns off his game, in the last quarter. He returns home with six boxes of Pop Tarts and two gallons of chocolate-flavored soy milk (the list said "Breakfast Foods") along with a variety of other condiments and creatively wrong non-food items. He flashes his wife an angry smile and feigns shock when she grumbles over his purchases.

Sound like an exaggeration? True story: it happened to my neighbor. And guess what–she has never asked her husband to run to the store for her since!

Case in point; passive aggressive behaviors can be quite effective in the short-term when it comes to avoiding tasks and frustrating others. In the long-term, however, unexpressed hostility is dangerously destructive to marriage and intimacy. As the ultimate obstacle to honest communication and direct expression, passive aggression is the silent killer of healthy feelings among family members.

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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