You sense that your husband is harboring feelings of anger at you, but you don’t know what is motivating his hostility. You’ve tried asking him if he is angry, but his standard response is to deny such feelings, then continue to withdraw and sulk.
You know the routine, because you’ve been down this road countless times before. Though uncomfortable with expressing his angry feelings directly, your spouse persistently lets you know about his resentments through passive aggressive means. How can you disengage from this destructive dynamic of unspoken anger and covert hostility? Here are three tips to improve communication with your passive aggressive spouse:
1. Affirm the Anger
Some people spend their lives guarding against any acknowledgement of their anger. One of the most powerful ways to improve communication in a relationship is to be willing to point out anger directly, when it is present in a situation. Anger should be called on by name in factual, non-judgmental statements, such as, “It seems to me that the issue is that you are angry at me right now.” This simple direct approach can be profound.
2. Manage the Denial
Your goal is to openly acknowledge the anger that has been closed off and kept secret for too long. Expect that once this has been done, your spouse will deny his angry feelings. When he does, it is helpful to accept his defenses in the moment, with a response such as, “It was just a thought I wanted to share with you.”
It is not necessary to argue with his denial at this time. Rather, back away from further discussion, leaving your spouse with the knowledge that you are aware of the anger that underlies his behavior. Now, your husband knows that his emotional mask has been lifted and the door has been opened for future discussion about his underlying anger.
3. Re-Visit the Thought
Confrontation of passive aggression is not a once-and-done cure for the behavior, but rather an approach whose best results come from repetition. When the dynamic is re-played (and it will be!), re-visit the thought with another affirming statement such as:
Remember when I mentioned I thought you were angry at me? Well, what just happened between us today seems similar to what happened last week. What do you think?
Again, it is not necessary to immediately argue the point, but rather it can be helpful to leave the passive aggressive person to process this thought for the time being. His is coming to understand and accept that his hidden anger is no longer a secret and he will need to communicate with you in a more emotionally honest way—or face the discomfort of the same type of conversation again and again.
Passive aggressive communication patterns can be even more destructive to marriages and families in the long term than outright aggression. 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 author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. For more information or workshop inquiries, please visit www.signewhitson.com