It’s Saturday morning. You sweetly ask your husband to hang this year’s family photo on the wall lining the staircase. He, in turn, nods sweetly, affirming your request.
It’s Saturday afternoon. Your husband has not moved from the sofa since breakfast. You bring a hammer, a nail, and a tape measure from the basement and lay them all out in front of your husband, thanking him kindly for agreeing to hang the photo. You even prompt him with a little, “Remember what happened last time I tried to hang the photo in the stairwell? We had to turn our necks 90 degrees just to see everyone right side up.”
He laughs at the memory and says, “Leave it to me this time. I’ll hang it.” Meanwhile, he turns up the volume on the TV and continues to watch re-runs on the History Channel.
You feel your blood pressure rising. You want the picture hung and you’d like it on the wall before your parents visit for breakfast on Sunday. You don’t want to remind him a third time, though, for fear of sounding like a nag.
What’s going on inside your husband’s head? Simple. He is home from work and enjoying his first free Saturday in a month. He wants to sit and watch TV unbothered and feels resentful of any encroachment on his time. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to come right out and tell you his feelings, because he fears having an argument. He has learned, though years of practice, that compliant defiance, aka passive aggression, is a satisfying way to express his anger.
Indeed, by nightfall, you are fuming about his complete lack of help around the house and the fact that the photo is still un-hung. You yell. You scream. You completely lose your cool and then feel embarrassed about your loss of control. Meanwhile, your husband, still cool as a cucumber, looks at you wide-eyed and says, “Wow. You don’t need to snap at me like that. I didn’t know you wanted it hung right away. I’ll go do it now.”
With your young children just put to bed upstairs, he begins an exaggerated process of yelling down the stairs to you about proper photo frame placement. Then, he noisily hammers into the wall. The children awaken and you are ready to explode for the second time that evening. With an angry smile, your husband politely asks, “Anything else, dear?”
If this encounter sounds all-too-familiar, consider these three strategies for responding more effectively to passive aggressive behavior in your marriage:
1. Recognize the Warning Signs
One of the greatest dangers that passive aggression poses to a relationship is how the targeted person becomes emotionally flooded and worn down before they even realize that passive aggressive dynamics are in play. The ability to recognize passive aggressive behaviors as they are occurring is critical to disengaging from the conflict and to avoiding becoming a naïve and unwitting victim of a person’s predictable and destructive way of engaging you. The most common passive aggressive behaviors include:
• Sulking & the silent treatment
• Intentional Inefficiency (Performing tasks to unacceptable standards)
• Excessive excuses & feigned misunderstanding
• Shutting down conversations with "Fine" and "Whatever."
2. Make Friends with Your Anger
Responding effectively to passive aggressive behavior in a relationship requires the ability to acknowledge and own the feelings of anger that a spouse's passive aggression creates. Self-awareness and self-talk are essential to managing your responses to passive aggressive behavior. As in the example above, if you ask a spouse to do a favor and he verbally agrees but behaviorally delays, you probably will ask him again. But if you have to ask a third time, you should immediately consider that passive aggressive dynamics may be in play. Say to yourself:
I have a feeling this may be passive aggressive behavior. He wants me to get angry and yell, so it will end up being my problem and not his. I will not participate in this unproductive passive aggressive conflict cycle. I know what is behind his procrastination and intentional inefficiency. It is his feelings of anger and resentment that he is unwilling to express to me openly.
3. State Requests Clearly
In the picture hanging example, while the wife knew that she wanted the picture hung before her parents’ arrival early the next day, she never specifically stated this in her multiple requests to her husband. In her mind, the time frame was obvious, but the unspoken message gave her husband a loophole for feigning misunderstanding—a classic passive aggressive technique. The skill of managing this type of passive aggressive behavior is to set specific expectations, including time frames, for any request. Never assume that a passive aggressive person understands your needs. Even if the task is a routine one that has been carried out many times in the past, this ounce of prevention is worth every penny of a cure for passive aggressive behavior. Use care not to allow sarcasm or condescension in your voice as you detail the request. Rather, make your expectations as clear as possible in a neutral, assertive tone.
Unchecked, passive aggressive behavior can wreak havoc on relationships, marriages and families. For more strategies and techniques to effectively confront passive aggressive behavior, check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed.