What Should I Do When My Partner Is Passive-Aggressive?

3 tips for responding to hidden anger in your relationship.

Posted Nov 09, 2020

It’s the weekend. Days ago, you and your spouse agreed over dinner that this weekend would be the one in which the gutters were cleaned out. Clogged with leaves and muck, they are overdue for maintenance, and this may be the last nice weekend before the cold of winter sets in. You bring up the topic over coffee on Saturday morning. Your partner nods affirmingly. He even notes, “It’s supposed to rain tomorrow.”

It’s Saturday afternoon. Your spouse has not moved from the sofa since breakfast. You let him know that you have the extension ladder all set up and that you’ve cleaned all of the areas that you can reach on your own. To keep things light, you make a joke about how “vertically challenged” you are and tell him that his extra height and wingspan are desperately needed for this chore. 

He laughs and says, “Leave the rest for me.” Meanwhile, he turns up the volume on the TV and continues to watch DVR’ed recordings on the History Channel.

Two hours later, you feel your level of irritation rising. You want him to get the gutters done before it’s dark outside, and Sunday’s rain makes the chore impossible. You don’t want to remind him a third time, though, for fear of sounding like a nag.

What’s going on inside your husband’s head? Simple. He wants to relax and feels resentful of demands on his time. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to come right out and tell you his feelings because he prefers to avoid direct conflict. He has made a conscious yet unspoken decision to verbally comply with your request but behaviorally delay carrying it out. His choice is a hallmark tactic of passive-aggressive behavior—an anger expression style that results in the person on the receiving end of the behavior becoming outwardly furious while the original harborer of the anger remains calm.

Indeed, by nightfall, you are fuming that the gutters remain clogged while the skies have darkened, and rain is imminent. You yell. You scream. You completely lose your cool. Meanwhile, your partner, still cool as a cucumber, looks at you wide-eyed and says, “Wow. You don’t need to snap at me like that. I didn’t know you wanted it to get done today. Fine, I’ll go do it now.”

With your young children just put to bed upstairs, he begins an exaggerated process of yelling down the stairs to you about securing the ladder. Then, he noisily rattles the gutters. The children awaken, and you are ready to explode for the second time that evening. With an angry smile, your husband politely asks, “Is this good enough?"

If this encounter sounds all-too-familiar, consider these three strategies for responding more effectively to passive-aggressive behavior in your relationship:

1. Know the Red Flags of Passive Aggressive Behavior

One of the greatest dangers that passive aggression poses to a relationship is how the targeted person becomes emotionally flooded and worn down before they even realize that passive-aggressive dynamics are in play. The ability to recognize passive-aggressive behaviors as they are occurring is critical to disengaging from the conflict and avoiding becoming a naïve and unwitting victim of a person’s predictable and destructive way of engaging you. The most common passive-aggressive behaviors include:

  • Compliant defiance (verbally agreeing, but behaviorally delaying)
  • Intentional inefficiency (performing tasks to unacceptable standards)
  • Excessive excuses and feigned misunderstanding
  • Sulking and the silent treatment
  • Shutting down conversations with "fine" and "whatever"

2. Talk Yourself Past the Urge to React Angrily

Responding effectively to passive-aggressive behavior in a relationship requires the ability to acknowledge and own the feelings of anger that a spouse's passive aggression creates. As in the example above, if you ask a spouse to do a favor, and he verbally agrees but behaviorally delays, you probably will ask him again. But if you have to ask a third time, you should immediately consider that passive-aggressive dynamics may be in play.

Say to yourself: "I have a feeling my partner is being passive-aggressive. He wants me to get angry and yell, so it will end up being my problem and not his. I will not participate in this unproductive type of conflict.”

3. State Requests Clearly

In the gutter cleaning example, while the wife knew that she wanted the chore done that day, she never specifically stated this in her multiple requests. In her mind, the timeframe was obvious, but the unspoken message gave her partner a loophole for feigning misunderstanding—a classic passive-aggressive technique. The skill of managing this type of passive-aggressive behavior is to be as specific as possible when making requests. 

Never assume that a passive-aggressive person understands your needs. Even if the task is a routine one that has been carried out many times in the past, this ounce of prevention is worth every penny of a cure for passive-aggressive behavior. Use care not to allow sarcasm or condescension in your voice as you detail the request, lest you unwittingly participate in a passive-aggressive cycle of conflict.

References

Long, J., Long, N., & Whitson, S. (2016).  The Angry Smile: Effective Strategies to Manage Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home, at School, in Relationships, in the Workplace, and Online.  Hagerstown, MD: The LSCI Institute.