- The ambiguity of passive-aggressiveness adds to the challenge of interpreting other people's behavior.
- Passive-aggressive behavior is often motivated by rebellion, anger, and resentment.
- It's worth trying to decode passive-aggressiveness so we can act to improve our relationships.
Decoding people’s intentions so we can interpret their behavior and respond appropriately is challenging, especially when it comes to passive-aggressiveness.
In social psychology, it’s said that “attributions matter.” By this, we mean that when someone does something, how we respond (and what we think about the “actor”) often depends on our explanation (attribution) as to why they did it. The problem, social psychologists note, is that the attribution process is often flawed. How we explain another’s behavior, especially if it’s undesirable, may be biased by a lack of information. Our lenses are also sometimes distorted by our own sensitivities and our history with the actor. This can lead to confirmation bias in which we interpret their behavior in ways that confirm our already-negative view of them. Deciding whether another person is acting passive-aggressively is loaded with attributional ambiguity, adding to the already-challenging task of interpreting others’ behavior.
Passive aggression, like direct aggression, involves the intention to harm, but unlike direct aggression, it’s more indirect, leading to attributional ambiguity about whether it was aggressive or not. Did they really “forget”? Did they do a bad job on purpose? Was that an innocent comment or intended to hurt our feelings? Was that behavior simply thoughtless or intended to get back at us for a perceived wrong? Is their procrastination a deliberate rebellious reaction to our request? Are they clueless or deliberately ignoring our needs to punish us? Was that sarcastic joke at my expense funny or mean? Are they busy or giving me the "cold shoulder" to make a point? No two ways about it: Being on the receiving end of what might be a passive-aggressive word or deed is often confusing and maddening.
A Disorder No More
The ambiguity of passive-aggressiveness extends to the discipline of psychology. Once upon a time in psychology, passive-aggressiveness was diagnosed as a mental disorder, more specifically a personality disorder. But over a period of years, it was gradually removed from psychiatric diagnostic guides, including the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Not only was it conceptually “muddy,” but it didn’t hold up under psychometric evaluation as a stand-alone diagnosis (psychometrics are scientific methods that establish the validity and reliability of psychological constructs).
That said, mental health researchers and practitioners don’t deny passive-aggressiveness exists, or that some people might be more inclined to display it than others. For example, some people as a matter of personality are more likely to perceive they are being unfairly controlled, and to react passive-aggressively to assert their freedom. Couples therapists will attest that in response to a controlling partner, the other partner may respond passive-aggressively.
Passive-Aggressiveness as Gaslighting
I would also argue that in its most egregious form, passive-aggressiveness is a way of wielding power through intentional misdirection. In other words, it’s a tool of the gaslighter who intentionally does things to make a partner doubt reality and even their sanity. The ambiguity of passive-aggressiveness provides the cover of plausible deniability. The gaslighter can easily deny that what they said or did was intended to harm, and claim the target of their gaslighting is “crazy.”
The Role of Culture
Cultural factors may also come into play. Aggressiveness may be enacted passively when social norms prohibit more overt aggression. From this perspective, passive-aggressiveness can be normative when direct aggression is frowned upon. Hence, angry and resentful people may act passively-aggressively. Passive-aggressive behavior may even be more common in some subcultures in which “nice” is valued. For example, in some southeastern parts of the U.S., “bless your heart” often follows critical remarks made in a pleasant tone.
It also bears saying that power imbalances may lead to passive aggression. Higher-status people can get away with more overt aggression than lower-status ones, and powerful people who wield their power arbitrarily and insensitively should expect passive-aggressiveness in return.
So where does this leave us?
First, I think it’s clear that we will regularly encounter interpersonal situations where it's unclear whether someone else is being passive-aggressive. It may be worth gently asking the "actor" for help in interpreting their ambiguous behavior while expressing a desire to right any wrong.
However, because some passive-aggressive people are uncomfortable with conflict (hence their passive-aggressive expression of their displeasure) or may not feel safe talking about it, they may say nothing is wrong. There is also some question as to whether passive-aggression can be an unconscious expression of anger and whether people may be unaware of their passive-aggressiveness.
Second, because passive-aggressiveness is sometimes a response to feeling unfairly or arbitrarily controlled, it’s worth asking ourselves whether we are in fact overly controlling such that we’ve created the need to rebel, or created resentfulness and anger in our partner. Likewise, do we have a history of defensive responses such that they don't feel safe telling us what's really up? That said, it’s not always us, as some people are very quick to rebel against requests from others—even reasonable requests.
Third, consider the relationship context, and whether passive aggression is a “relationship red flag.” If there are other hallmarks of gaslighting, it’s time to figure out how to get out before we’re destroyed. Likewise, if you don’t feel safe honestly expressing your concerns such that you act passively-aggressively as the only way to feel you have some power and control in the relationship, maybe it’s time to leave, or time for counseling (or both).
Finally, we should “check” our own passive-aggressive behavior. It’s not good for our relationships. Stop with the supposed jokes or snarky remarks that are really targeted barbs. Be honest about what you’re really angry about instead of acting out passive-aggressively. Don't reflexively rebel with procrastination or low-quality work in response to reasonable requests. Own up and apologize when you’ve been passive-aggressive and try to do better.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Benjamin, L.S. (1993). Interpersonal Diagnosis and Treatment of Personality Disorders. Guilford: NY, NY.
Lim, O.Y., & Sun, K.H. (2022). Development and validation of a measure of passive aggression traits: The Passive Aggression Scale (PAS). Behavioral Science (Basel), 12, doi: 10.3390/bs12080273.
Pretzger, J.L., & Beck, A.T. (1996). A cognitive theory of personality disorders. In Major Theories of Personality Disorders. Guilford: NY, NY.