Most people are afraid of conflict in their relationship. No one really enjoys getting into arguments with a partner. But some people find conflict more terrifying than others, and a passive-aggressive person is deathly afraid of conflict.
When you're the partner of someone who behaves in a passive-aggressive way, it can feel like you're locked in an endless dance of anger and frustration. Over my 35 years as a marriage therapist, I've tried and tested many ways to resolve conflicts and have come up with 7 battle-tested steps to resolving conflicts with a passive-aggressive partner.
In order for any conflict-resolution strategy to work, you must come to it from a place of empathy for the person who is passive-aggressive, so first let's learn a bit about the trait.
Like most emotional responses, our attitudes about conflict begin in our childhood. If the conflict your partner saw at home as a kid involved open expressions of anger—and sometimes violence—your partner's experience has taught them that conflict means someone will get hurt. If, instead of outward expressions of uncontrolled anger, your partner's family did the opposite and avoided conflict at all costs, your partner likely never learned how to fight fair—meaning, they never learned that conflicts can be productive tools.
Healthy conflict doesn't only resolve a dispute, but it can also build understanding and compassion in relationships.
For people who rely on passive-aggressive behavior to get their needs met, their biggest fear is that any overt disagreement will lead to the end of a relationship. Your partner is likely anxious and doesn't want to tell you directly how they feel because of fear about how you may react. Your partner is scared that you will abandon or divorce them if they assertively express their needs and desires.
Now you know where passive-aggressiveness comes from, here are my 7 steps to resolving conflicts with a passive-aggressive partner:
1. Cool down.
If you approach your partner when you're in the throes of an angry emotional reaction, no good will come of it; your partner will just shut down. Take some time to breathe and cool down, examine your anger, and gain control of your emotion before you proceed. Seriously. Take time on this step. Things tend to go wrong when people try to resolve conflicts while they're emotionally activated.
Talk to your partner about exactly what the problem is. Both of you should define the problem from your own point of view. You want to make sure the conversation you think you're having is the conversation you're actually having. Don't try to read your partner's mind.
Work together to come up with ideas and options for solving your problem. Make a list of all the possible solutions—include ones you don't like, ones your partner might not like, and ones that sound crazy but could maybe, possibly work. Throw it all out there.
4. Pros and cons.
Now that you've got your list of ideas for solutions, go through your list and discuss the pros and cons of them. Talk about what you like about the ideas and what you don't like. In the discussion you might even come up with more ideas!
Choose the solution that works best for both parties. Have the intention that everyone wins, or at least no one loses. The win-win solution is the best one, but obviously that's not always realistic in every conflict.
6. Execute the solution.
Put your idea into practice and see what happens. Be sure to give it time; change isn't immediate.
7. Evaluate the solution.
Come back after you've tried out the solution for a little while (you might want to agree on a date to discuss it in advance). Did it work? What, if anything, might you do better next time?
There are also some important behavioral dos and don'ts that will help make these conflict resolution steps work (or fail to work). You may want to add to this list. Then go over it with your partner before you start discussing the issue at hand:
Part of being human is having needs. Part of the reality of being in a relationship is facing the fact that your partner also has needs, and sometimes those needs aren't in line with yours. It is unrealistic to expect to live without some discord. In a healthy relationship, conflict—when used effectively—can bring you closer together by helping you work together to increase your empathy and understanding.
Here is a follow-up blog that will help clarify this blog.
To learn more about managing passive-aggressive behavior, please join me at one of my upcoming passive-aggressiveness workshops.