Passive-Aggressiveness in Relationships: How to Stop It

Passive-aggressive behavior can erode relationships: the cause and solutions.

Posted Jan 16, 2021

Source: nielverlaan/Pixabay

Marley’s husband Jake never says no. She complains about his not helping out with the laundry, and he always says the right stuff—yes, he’ll help out, no problem—but then he doesn’t or quits after a few days or does it a week later than what he agreed to do. And if she brings it up again, the same conversation is repeated—so sorry, he says. Yes, he’ll do it; he just got busy. Marley’s getting frustrated, always trying to push the same rock up the same hill.

What’s the problem? It’s not about laundry. Marley has had this struggle about other things in their relationship—about spending more time together on weekends, about having more sex—whatever problem she brings up, she gets the same agreeable, no-problem response.

But there's no follow-through—Jake quits after a few days, or he puts it off, always dragging his feet till she reminds him again, and again gets the same response. He's so sorry; he's been tied up with work; he's on it. And occasionally, he will make these quick sarcastic comments that seem to come out of nowhere that Marley tries to dismiss.

While Jake may have real problems with follow-through—he may, for example, have an attention-deficit disorder that makes it hard for him to stay on track and organize his time—or, yes, can get preoccupied and forget—it's more likely that Jake’s way of coping with anger and confrontation is to be passive-aggressive.

Anatomy of Passive-Aggressiveness

And passive-aggressiveness is a way of coping. While it can be frustrating, hurtful, or feel manipulative to those receiving the brunt of this behavior, passive-aggressive folks aren't like others who are truly manipulative—narcissists, sociopaths who are constantly using people, have little empathy, where their mindset is me-against-the-world. Jake's not driven by a me-taking-care-of-me-and-screw-everyone-else attitude but rather by underlying anxiety.

How do you become passive-aggressive? Two ways: One is growing up in a family where anger was never displayed, and the parents themselves were passive-aggressive with each other; the children, through modeling, learn to do the same. The second scenario is where the parents openly displayed anger, which understandably frightened the children. But while the parents could get angry, the children could not: Any show of anger was smacked down with emotional and/or physical consequences.

In such a scary, unsafe environment, children look for ways to cope. For some, it is about shutting down, withdrawing, trying to stay invisible. For others, it is about internalizing, blaming themselves for their parents' anger flares. For still others, it is about being ever-more careful—walking on eggshells, being good or even perfect.

But because children all have different temperaments, are always bouncing off their siblings, some children take a different path. They don't suppress or internalize their anger, but instead rework it into passive-aggressiveness: Agree, voice compliance to placate and avoid retaliation, but hold onto that anger and resist in their own ways—agree but then don't follow through, do things slowly or put them off, put in just enough effort to stay out of trouble, mumble under your breath and deny you've said anything, say the right things but essentially ignore their requests, etc. And if confronted again, rinse and repeat. The moral of the story of childhood is to appease those who try to control you, avoid conflict at all costs, but go guerilla and resist in any way you can. 

Passive-Aggressiveness and Adults

Children do what they need to do to survive the climate, the world they live in, and because they are children, their coping skills and options are limited. What often shows up as adult problems are remnants of childhood coping styles. The good child becomes the good, walking-on-eggshells adult; the passive-aggressive child becomes the passive-aggressive adult.

Yes, you may rationally know that you have more options, that you don't need to be afraid, that you can speak up and confront problems in better ways—all that goes out the window when that little-kid anxiety gets triggered. You instinctively revert to your default mode—you say the right stuff, voice agreement, but dribble out your anger in sarcasm, complying in a way that looks like you are complying, but you're complying in your own way or not at all. 

Stopping the Pattern

Jake’s challenge is to learn to manage his anger in new, better, adult ways. To do this, he needs to pay attention to those gut reactions, his anger or annoyance or irritation, and then, despite how he feels, step up and be an assertive adult. No doubt, he can do this in other parts of his life—at work, at staff meetings—he has the skills. His challenge is to apply this to Marley or others who can trigger and intimidate him in ways that make him feel like a kid.  

This is the key—doing now what he couldn’t do then. Again, he will still feel anxious—those little-kid feelings will kick in—but he needs to act despite how he feels. This is what will help him override his anxiety, and acting and finding that Marley doesn’t abandon or abuse him will build up his self-confidence to keep doing it. 

Finally, he can take this one step further and take a more active role in his relationship with Marley rather than continuing to take that passive, reactive stance: Using his anger and annoyance as information about problems that need to addressed, proactively letting Marley know what he feels and needs rather than constantly ducking and weaving and trying to stay out of trouble. By stepping up, seeing himself as a real partner, an equal, a part of a team, he can begin to shed those little-kid feelings.

And Marley's role? To help Jake feel safe expressing his anger: When he does speak up, to resist any urge to push back or criticize but instead listen and thank him for being honest. To encourage him to take a more active role: Rather than saying, "Let's go for a hike this weekend," and have Jake passively agree, instead say, "I'd like to do something together this weekend, but I'd like to do something you want to do; think about it, and let me know." And then give him time to think it over. And if he comes up with a suggestion, act on it.

This is about healing old emotional wounds that both partners bring into any relationship. It's about taking baby steps on both sides and working towards creating a safe emotional environment as a couple. If they can both do this, if anger can be expressed in healthy, problem-solving ways on both sides, those old passive-aggressive ways can be replaced with healthier adult skills.