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10 Signs of a Passive-Aggressive Relationship

How to spot a passive-aggressive individual.

Key points

  • Passive-aggressive actions can range from the relatively mild, such as lack of follow-through, to serious, such as sabotaging another.
  • Most chronically passive-aggressive individuals are unreasonable to deal with and uncomfortable to experience.
  • Being persistently critical is a passive aggressive action that comes from seeking a false sense of importance.

The NYU Medical Center defines a passive-aggressive individual as someone who "may appear to comply or act appropriately, but actually behaves negatively and passively resists.” A passive-aggressive relationship can occur in a romantic partnership, in family, in social circles, or at the workplace.

Passive-aggressive actions can range from the relatively mild, such as making excuses for not following through, to the very serious, such as sabotaging someone’s well-being and success.

Most chronically passive-aggressive individuals have four common characteristics: They’re unreasonable to deal with, they’re uncomfortable to experience, they rarely express their hostility directly, and they repeat their subterfuge behavior over time.

Here are 10 common traits passive-aggressive people exhibit in relationships, with excerpts from my books, How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People and A Practical Guide for Passive-Aggressives to Change Towards the Higher Self. Most pathological passive-aggressive people manifest a least several of the following behaviors on a regular basis while remaining largely unaware (or unconcerned with) how their actions impact others. There are overlaps in some of the categories below.

1. Disguised Verbal Hostility

Examples: Negative gossip. Negative orientation. Habitual criticism of ideas, conditions, and expectations. Addressing an adult like a child. Invalidation of others’ experiences and feelings.

Possible Intention(s): Putting others down to feel dominant and superior. Causing others to feel inadequate and insecure to relieve one’s own sense of deficiency. Seeking a false sense of importance by being persistently critical. Consciously or unconsciously spreading one’s own unhappiness (misery loves company). Competing for power and control in the relationship.

2. Disguised Hostile Humor

Examples: Sarcasm. Veiled hostile joking — often followed by "just kidding." Repetitive teasing. Subtle “digs” at one’s appearance, gender, socio-cultural background, credentials, behavior, decisions, social relations, etc.

Possible Intention(s): Express hidden anger, disapproval, or rejection towards an individual. Disdain towards an individual for what she or he represents. Using humor as a weapon in an attempt to marginalize another's humanity, dignity, and credibility.

3. Disguised Relational Hostility

Examples: The silent treatment. The invisible treatment. Social exclusion. Neglect. Sullen resentment. Indirectly hurting something or someone of importance to the targeted person.

Possible Intention(s): Express anger or resentment. Punishment. Purposely creating a negative and disconcerting environment. Putting the targeted recipient off balance. Attempting to create insecurity.

4. Disguised Psychological Manipulation

Examples: Lying. Excuse making. Two-faced. Backstabbing. Deliberate button pushing. Negative or discomforting surprises. Blaming the victim for causing their own victimization. Deformation of the truth. Mixed messages to keep the recipient off balance. Strategic disclosure or withholding of key information. Exaggeration. Understatement. One-sided bias of issue.

Possible Intention(s): Deception and Intrigue. Avoidance of responsibility. Manipulate facts of the issue. Distort perception for easier persuasion and control. Misdirection to take the focus off of the real issue.

5. Guilt-Baiting

Examples: Unreasonable blaming. Targeting the recipient’s soft spot. Holding another responsible for the passive-aggressive’s happiness and success. Holding another responsible for the passive-aggressive’s unhappiness and failures.

Possible Intention(s): Targeting the recipient’s emotional weaknesses and vulnerability. Manipulate and coerce the recipient into ceding unreasonable requests and demands.

6. Stalling

Examples: Procrastination. Forgetting. Stonewalling. Withholding resources or information. Unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape. Excuse making. Broken agreements. Lack of follow-through.

Possible Intention(s): Avoiding responsibility, duty, and obligations. Maintaining power and control by imposing many hoops to jump through. Passive competitiveness that makes life more difficult for others. Purposely blocking others’ success. Jealousy of others’ success.

7. Resistance

Examples: Stubbornness. Rigidity. Inefficiency, complication, incompletion, or ruination of a task.

Possible Intentions(s): Power struggle. Passive combativeness. “Victory” is gained from the frustrated efforts and negative emotions of the recipient.

8. Underhanded Sabotage

Examples: Purposely undermine tasks, projects, activities, deadlines, or agreements. Causing harm or loss materially. Overspending. Wrecking positive chemistry interpersonally, socially, or professionally. Deliberate disclosure of harmful information. Deliberate obstruction of communication and endeavors.

Possible Intention(s): Covertly express anger, hostility, and resentment towards an individual, group, or organization. Channeling unspoken gripes or unresolved past issues. Personal, social, or professional jealously. Subtly administering punishment or revenge.

9. Self-Punishment (“I’ll show you”)

Examples: Quitting. Deliberate failure. Addiction. Self-harm.

Possible Intention(s): Hurting another by hurting oneself. Aiming to frustrate, frighten, or pain someone. Appeal to sympathy. Drama. Wanting and needing attention. A cry for help on deeper issues (might require strong intervention).

10. Victimhood

Examples: Exaggerated or imagined personal issues. Exaggerated or imagined health issues. Dependency. Co-dependency. Deliberate frailty to elicit sympathy and favor. Playing weak, powerless, or martyr.

Possible Intention(s): Designed to exploit the recipient’s goodwill, guilty conscience, sense of duty and obligation, or protective and nurturing instinct.

Although passive-aggressive people are not pleasant to deal with, there are many effective skills and strategies you can employ to minimize their damage and gain their cooperation, while increasing your own confidence, composure, and problem-solving prowess.

© 2015 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.

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