Passive Aggressive Diaries

Understanding passive aggressive behavior in families, schools, and workplaces

Confronting Passive Aggressive Behavior

Strategies to identify and change hidden hostility in a relationship

One of my favorite stories about passive aggressive behavior in a marriage goes like this:

“Cash, check or charge?" I asked, after folding the items the woman wished to purchase. As she fumbled for her wallet, I noticed a remote control for a television set in her purse. "So, do you always carry your TV remote?" I asked. "No," she replied, "but my husband refused to go shopping with me and I figured this was the most evil thing I could do to him legally."

In relationships, passive aggressive behaviors are often used to avoid the direct confrontation of short-term conflict, but in the long-term, these dynamics can be even more destructive than outright aggression. To keep assertive communication flowing in your relationship, here are four strategies to effectively confront passive aggressive behavior:

1. Recognize the Warning Signs of Passive Aggression Behavior

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009). This “sugarcoated hostility” involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger. When a person is able to quickly identify hallmark passive aggressive behaviors for what they are—hidden expressions of anger—they take the first critical step in disengaging from the destructive dynamic. Some of the most common passive aggressive behaviors to be aware of include:

  • Procrastination
  • Behaving beneath customary standards
  • Pretending not to see, hear, remember, or understand requests
  • The silent treatment
  • Sulking & withdrawal
  • Gossiping

2. Refuse to Engage

Passive aggressive adults are experts at getting others to act out their hidden anger. The skill of recognizing passive aggressive behaviors at face value allows you to be forewarned and to make a choice not to become entangled in a no-win power struggle. When you sense these destructive dynamics coming into play, manage your own emotions through such self-talk statements as:

  • “He is being passive aggressive and I will not participate in this routine.”
  • “I will not yell or become sarcastic because this behavior will only escalate the conflict.

3. Point Out the Elephant in the Room

Passive aggressive persons spend their lives avoiding direct emotional expression and guarding against open acknowledgment of their anger. One of the most powerful ways to confront passive aggressive dynamics and change the behavior in the long-term, then, is to be willing to point out anger directly, when it is present in a situation. Anger should be affirmed in a factual, non-judgmental way, such as, “It seems to me that you are angry at me for making this request.” The impact of this seemingly simple exposure can be quite profound.

4. Expect & Accept Denial

Your goal is to make overt the anger that has been covert, stuffed inside, and kept secret for so long. Expect that once this has been done, the passive aggressive person will very likely deny the existence of anger.

When he does, you should verbally accept the defenses for the time being, with a response such as, “Okay! It was just a thought I wanted to share with you.” Don’t argue or correct the person’s denial at this time, but rather quietly back away from further discussion, leaving your spouse with the thought that you are aware there are some feelings of anger behind his behavior.

The advantage of this approach is the comfort of not having to justify or defend your acknowledgement of the anger. By simply sharing your awareness of his covert anger, you have sent a bold and powerful message that the passive aggressive behavior cannot continue and the relationship needs to change.

Signe Whitson, LSW is the Chief Operating Officer of the LSCI Institute and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. For more information on understanding and changing passive aggressive behavior, please visit www.signewhitson.com

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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