What Causes Passive Aggression?
How experiencing emotional abuse can lead to passive aggressive behavior.
Posted Mar 25, 2020
How frustrating is it to deal with a passive aggressive person? Pretty quickly, our patience wears thin and we feel the pain of their hurtful words. Naturally, it's difficult, if not impossible, to feel empathy or closeness to such people when they're lashing out. This post explores the passive aggressive personality and discusses a potential connection with the experience of childhood emotional abuse.
Given the overwhelming prevalence of passive aggressive behavior in interpersonal relationships, you probably thought of someone when reading the title of this post. Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) used to be a diagnosis in the DSM-III (1980) but was removed, in part, due to symptomatology overlap with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder,  despite objection to its removal by some personality theorists and clinical psychologists . But what causes people to act in a passive aggressive manner?
First, I'd like to acknowledge an excellent brief blog post on a similar topic published here by Signe Whitson. Her post seeks to explain the continuance of passive aggressive behavior in close relationships by highlighting two features of passive aggression (PA): First, that it is the path to least resistance – meaning that the individual employing PA has considered the consequences of the alternate action (explicit verbal aggression/noncompliance/conflict) and reached the conclusion that this action would lead to a more undesirable outcome than PA. Notably, the passive aggressive behavior is generally rewarded by the feeling of satisfaction the PA individual gains from the recipient's frustration. Next, Whitson writes that PA is a habit. She explains, "Children of passive aggressive parents learn the indirect expression of anger as a way of life. They grow up with the belief that 'anger = bad' and that hiding anger is the right, healthy, proper thing to do." Like other bad habits, passive aggression is easier to pick up than put down.
With this in mind, the PA communicator is stuck in a positive feedback loop; the more they act passive aggressively, the more it becomes a habit and their primary form of expressing displeasure. These individuals likely wouldn't describe themselves as passive aggressive; they're only doing what they know best. While Whitson's example of social learning (kids copy their parents) may explain the original development of PA behavior for some individuals, I'd like to take a look at another possible cause.
The experience of childhood emotional abuse – which has only recently been recognized as distinct from other forms of abuse – is widely associated with a litany of undesirable adult outcomes like depression, anxiety, self-harm, feelings of hopelessness, and even neurophysiological changes [see 3]. In a meta-analysis of 46 separate samples , the overall estimated prevalence of childhood emotional abuse was 363/1000 when self-reports were used. In other words, approximately 1 in 3 individuals reports experiencing some form of emotional abuse as a child. This prevalence rate was 100 times higher than the rate gathered from informant reports, suggesting that the experience of childhood emotional abuse is much more common than it is socially perceived to be.
Hopwood and Back  write that people who employ passive aggressive styles of communication are "chronically concerned about being subjugated by others," "hyper‐focused on [their] inability to match the power of [others]," and troubled by a "motivational conflict between feeling subservient and desiring power [which leads] to an immature compromise in which [they are] submissive in the sense that [they do] not directly challenge authority, but dominant in the sense that [they] also [do] not comply with the authority figure's expectations." (Quotes edited for tense and non-gendered language). These features, and the associated internal conflict, mirror the experience of a child subjected to emotional abuse: powerless, subjugated, and unable to employ agency in a hostile home environment.
Of course, this is not to say that all survivors of emotional abuse are doomed to become passive aggressive. And it's not to say that people who employ passive aggressive communication should be forgiven their actions. Rather, it may be worthwhile for those who suffer under the weight of PA behavior from loved ones or acquaintances to consider where their habits originated. Without serving as an excuse for PA behavior, understanding that PA individuals are likely stuck in their habits, feeling powerless in their relationships with others, and acting out learned coping skills originating in survived childhood emotional abuse may help us communicate better.
Hopwood, C. J., & Back, M. (2018). Interpersonal dynamics in personality and personality disorders. European Journal of Personality, 32(5), 499-524. doi:10.1002/per.2155
Hopwood, C. J., Morey, L. C., Markowitz, J. C., Pinto, A., Skodol, A. E., Gunderson, J. G., . . . Sanislow, C. A. (2009). The construct validity of passive-aggressive personality disorder. Psychiatry, 72(3), 256-267. doi:10.1521/psyc.2009.72.3.256
Stoltenborgh, M., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Alink, L. R. A., & van IJzendoorn, M. H. (2012). The universality of childhood emotional abuse: A meta-analysis of worldwide prevalence. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 21(8), 870-890. doi:10.1080/10926771.2012.708014