Passive aggression is a way of expressing negative feelings, such as anger or annoyance, indirectly instead of directly. Passive-aggressive behaviors are often difficult to identify and can sabotage relationships at home and at work.
Instead of getting visibly angry, some people express their hostility in passive-aggressive ways designed to hurt and confuse their target. Most people will have to deal with passive aggression from others in their personal and professional lives at one time or another: a roommate who leaves a sweet-yet-scolding note about the one cup that was left unwashed, for example, or the report a colleague keeps "forgetting" to finish.
Nagging or getting angry only puts the passive-aggressive person on the defensive—often resulting in them making excuses or denying any responsibility. Recent research shows that there are healthier ways to confront passive aggression and handle relationship conflict.
Passive aggression stems from deep anger, hostility, and frustration that a person, for whatever reason, is not comfortable expressing directly. When dealing with passive-aggressive behavior, it’s important to understand that beneath all of those snide remarks lies a deep unhappiness and sadness.
Some common forms of passive aggression include avoiding responsibility for tasks, procrastinating and even missing deadlines, withholding critical information, and frequently underachieving relative to what one is capable of producing. This type of behavior can cause problems at home when the family cannot depend on a passive-aggressive individual to follow through on their promises. Passive aggression at work can sabotage group projects, resulting in unachieved goals.
Passive-aggressive behavior can be intensely frustrating for the target because it’s hard to identify, difficult to prove, and may even be unintentional. Passive aggression can lead to more conflict and intimacy issues, because many people struggle to have a direct and honest conversation about the problem at hand.
Passive aggression is particularly damaging in relationships. The target often feels frustrated and powerless, unable to secure the passive-aggressive person's cooperation. As a result, a person may fall into a pattern of enabling the partner’s passive-aggressive behavior, assuming all responsibility and taking on a parental role that they don’t want. Inevitably, the conflict will come to a head and need to be resolved if the relationship is to continue.
While passive-aggressive behavior can be hard to pin down, experts agree on the most common signs, which include refusing to discuss concerns openly and directly, avoiding responsibility, and being deliberately inefficient.
The passively aggressive person often leaves a job undone or “almost” complete. They frequently run late and are masters at subtly sabotaging others when they disagree with a course of action. They often resort to the silent treatment or the backhanded compliment to get their point across.
These individuals will hide their anger instead of expressing it directly. Passive-aggressive behavior can take the form of words (e.g., blaming others or making excuses) or actions (e.g., giving someone the silent treatment). Some subtle but insidious kinds of passive aggression are diminished eye contact, persistent forgetting, and ignoring the targeted individual during a group conversation.
Not always. Some people are so used to pushing their anger deep down that they don’t even realize it’s there anymore. One major sign that someone engages in passive-aggressiveness in their relationships is if they don’t think they’re an “angry person” and don’t believe they experience anger with any regularity. They may find themselves saying “yes” when they mean “no” or using the role of the victim or martyr to gain attention.
It’s not uncommon for an individual to use passive aggression to get their way when they don’t like conflict. For instance, a parent who doesn’t want the bedtime responsibilities might play with the child instead of going through their usual sleep routine, driving the other parent to take over again. While these sneaky tactics might result in a short-term win, confronting the passive-aggressive person may be necessary to restore trust in the relationship in the long run.
Extreme forms of the "silent treatment," such as completely ignoring someone and refusing to respond to their attempts to communicate, are more direct ways to express hostility. Additional actions are subtle yet passive-aggressive, such as pretending not to hear a colleague’s comment or failing to acknowledge a friend in the hallway. These are all signs that you are dealing with a passive-aggressive person.
Silence proves an effective way to passive-aggressively wound and shame the target. The silent treatment can be a type of “quiet” verbal abuse, particularly when someone in a position of power (like a parent) uses silence to manipulate someone vulnerable (like a child). Being ignored or having someone pretend like you don’t exist can be a potent form of punishment that may cause lasting harm.
Better communication can help to change someone’s passive-aggressive behavior. Once you have identified the toxic behavior, stop participating in it. Instead, affirm the passive-aggressive person’s inner anger, which they will likely deny. Compliment their areas of competence and reinforce the behavioral change you want to see. Don’t be afraid to revisit the subject if necessary.
Passive aggression often stems from underlying anger, sadness, or insecurity, of which the person may or may not be consciously aware. Passive-aggressive behavior may be an expression of those emotions or an attempt to gain control in a relationship.
Bearing that in mind can inform how you respond. Although it can be tempting to react by being passive-aggressive yourself, expressing anger or frustration will likely spur the person to continue behaving the same way. Demonstrating that you value the passive-aggressive person's perspective may help if you are thereby addressing an underlying sense of insecurity. But you should not apologize for unfounded offenses or otherwise placate them.
If at all possible, the best solution is often to limit the time you spend in their presence. But if you determine that confrontation is the best path forward, avoid being accusatory as you calmly explain how the behavior makes you feel.
When dealing with a passive-aggressive person, hold them accountable for their bad behavior. Stop apologizing if you’ve done nothing wrong. Try putting your needs first, for a change. They likely want you to blow up or counter with passive aggression of your own—don’t play their game. Instead, calmly and directly address the issue at hand, being specific about what they do or say that upsets you.
Managing your own emotions is key when you’re responding to passive-aggressive behavior. Take a few deep breaths or temporarily remove yourself from the situation before responding. Try to address the person’s concerns directly. Set clear boundaries and, if necessary, limit the time you spend with the passive-aggressive person.
Stonewalling occurs when one partner shuts down, withdraws, and stops responding altogether, essentially turning into a stone wall. Stonewalling may also involve passive-aggressive avoidance behaviors, like pretending to be busy with work when a partner wants to talk seriously. While men are less likely to get physiologically aroused when their partner stonewalls them, women tend to experience an increased heart rate.
Staying as calm as possible can prevent stonewalling behavior. If a couple can listen and speak without getting defensive, that will decrease the need for passive-aggressive tactics like stonewalling. Start practicing validation and other communication skills that make marriages work to repair any damage stonewalling has done to your relationship.