The passive partner. Whatever you suggest is fine. Everything is no problem. It can feel like you are pushing a rope uphill, or probably more accurately, trying to play tug o’ war with the other side always letting go. They can be charming, interesting people, but the frustration comes when you feel like you are constantly doing the heavy lifting when it comes to decision-making.
Passivity is obviously at the “flight” end of the “fight or flight” stress-coping spectrum, and when stress goes up generally so too does the passivity. Like other parts of our personalities all this originates in our childhood, centered around anxiety. Some learn this through modeling – this is how my mother coped in her own childhood and her marriage and I do the same. Some by bouncing off siblings – because my brother was always angry, I decided to cope and get attention by staying under the radar and making no waves.
Here are some of the underlying dynamics and nuances that can keep passivity going:
The problem with childhood coping is that what works good-enough as a kid (i.e., keeps you alive) doesn’t work so well as an adult in a bigger world. Okay, so what can you do to help?
Give a heads up. For those easily rattled by transitions, give them a head up. John’s wife needs to say on Tuesday that maybe she’s thinking of her mother coming over for dinner on the weekend. While still a bit upsetting (remember John mentally mapped out weekend on Monday), it gives him time to think it over and adjust, to figure out what he may want rather than collapsing. It’s not about mothers, but about adjusting to change.
Put your partner in charge. The rewiring of the brain, the skill development comes in learning to be proactive rather than passively reactive. One way to do this is to ask your partner to be in charge of something – an upcoming vacation, a dinner for friends. Give sufficient notice. Say they can do whatever they want. Sound low key and relaxed. Make it an invitation and non-pressured rather than a command.
And then take what you get – no criticism, no micromanaging. This is an experiment in and experience in proactivity, not about ideal vacations or dinner parties. Keep expectations low to none.
Support the expression of any negative emotions. Because passivity can be an auto response to avoiding conflict and submerging negative emotions, anytime….anytime your partner expresses any negative emotion – frustration, irritation, annoyance, anger, disappointment – encourage the expression by remaining calm, by listening. It is not about the content, it is about helping your partner feel safe in expressing these types of feelings.
Talk about passivity. If you have been carrying the weight of decisions, if you have been feeling frustrated, get it on the table. Not about your carrying the load and feeling fed up, not raging about the other’s complacence, but about the passivity itself, your partners seeming struggle to speak up and saying what they want rather than going along with. Talk about appreciating your partners insights, inputs, ideas. See if you together can come up with a plan to change the dynamics.
Seek couple counseling. I’ve seen men and women who are “sent” by their partners to work on their passivity, and they show up not to work on it, but to once again replicate the problem and go along with. This has limited value. Try couple counseling instead so you can start out on an equal footing around who has what problem, and can work together as team to solve them.
The keys here are simple albeit difficult at times: Understand it is not about you. Watch your non-verbals. Avoid micro-managing. Provide lots of positive feedback. Don't be a martyr.
Do the best you can do. That's always the best you can do.