10 Signs You're in a Relationship With a Passive-Aggressive

Be on the lookout for these, before you get blindsided.

Posted Nov 15, 2015

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Source: Shutterstock

“Whatever!”

― Common passive-aggressive retort

“It’s your fault that I forgot…because you didn’t remind me!” 

― Anonymous

“You’re going out looking like THAT?” 

― Anonymous

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." Passive-aggressive actions can range from the relatively mild, such as making excuses for not keeping a promise, 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.

How do you know when you’re in a relationship with a passive-aggressive? The following are some telltale signs, with excerpts from my book (click on title): “How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People”. While most of us are guilty of some of the following behaviors at one time or another, a pathological passive-aggressive tends to dwell habitually in several of the following personas, while remaining largely unaware of (or unconcerned with) how his or her actions affect others.

1.  The Silent Treatment/The Cold Shoulder

Deliberately and unreasonably not communicating with you. In personal relationships, the purpose of the silent treatment is often intended to keep you off balance, to imply that you “did something wrong,” and that you’re being punished.

A variation of the silent treatment is to withhold love and affection. In this case, there is some communication, but the attitude and tone are curt and abrupt. Topics of conversation are superficial and unemotional. By withholding intimacy, the passive-aggressive sends the message that you have done something to displease her or him, and accordingly are now suffering the consequences*.

2.  Saying “Yes” but Meaning “No”

This is one of the most common types of passive-aggressiveness in relationships, especially in situations where two people have known each other for some time, and one has given up trying to work through certain issues. Here, saying “yes” is simply a way to avoid argument and confrontation. The passive-aggressive really doesn’t mean it, and likely won’t follow-through.

3.  Saying “I Can’t” but Meaning “I Won’t”

Similarly, when someone repeatedly says “I can’t” to reasonable requests, and provides multiple excuses, it could simply mean that she does not want to take on the responsibility. By playing a relatively helpless role, the passive-aggressive hopes that someone else (perhaps you) will fulfill the obligation, or that the matter will simply be dropped.

4.  Brooding/Simmering Resentment

Brooding can be defined as silent and prolonged unhappiness. Simmering resentment is anger unspoken and barely concealed.  In both cases, the issues are not expressed and dealt with directly. When you inquire whether something is wrong, the passive-aggressive may deny the upset, and retort with curt phrases such as: “nothing!” or “I’m fine!” But the negative attitude, tone of voice, and emotion betray the truth.   

5.  Procrastination

Unlike the saying “yes” but not following through characteristic discussed earlier, here the passive-aggressive does perform the task – eventually. By deliberately stalling, forgetting, making excuses, and undermining, the passive-aggressive demonstrates indirectly that he or she really doesn’t want to do the work. By frustrating you with delay tactics, the passive-aggressive presumes power, and hopes that you’ll give up expecting so much.

6.  Deliberate Negative Triggering

Sometimes a resentful passive-aggressive partner will purposely push your buttons by engaging in activities she or he knows you don’t like. Examples may include returning very late (without calling) after socializing, overspending, deliberately displaying unreasonable habits, or purposely engaging in contemptuous speech. Typically, these actions betray hostility about deeper issues not directly explored - the negative triggers are merely external symptoms of the passive-aggressive’s internal antipathy.

“Whenever I want to get back at my partner, I leave a mess in the house.”

― Anonymous

7.  Sarcasm

Some passive-aggressives like to make critical remarks, often disguised as humor, to either express their hostility towards you, or their displeasure about a situation. By making you look bad, and getting you to feel bad, the passive-aggressive hopes to impose and maintain psychological superiority over you. When confronted about the sarcasm, the passive-aggressive will typically deny her or his hostility by saying: “Just kidding!” or “Can’t you take a joke?”

8.  Sabotage

Acts of passive-aggressive sabotage are often intended to achieve a measure of power and/or revenge. In serious cases, they’re calculated to undermine your authority, confidence, reputation, success, and/or well-being. The subterfuge is performed clandestinely. Often you have little or no idea what’s going on - only to find out after the damage is done.

Examples of passive-aggressive sabotage include negative gossip, social exclusion, backstabbing, two faced, mixed messages, negative or discomforting surprises, and deliberately falling-through on promises – all of which are at your expense.

9.  Unreasonable Blaming

In a passive-aggressive relationship, one partner might hold the other as primarily responsible for the passive-aggressive’s happiness and success, or unhappiness and failures.

By targeting your emotional weaknesses and vulnerability, the passive-aggressive hopes to coerce you into ceding unreasonable requests and demands. The passive-aggression here is a form of coercive manipulation.

“It’s your fault if I’m unhappy about our relationship, because you didn’t buy me what I wanted.”

― Anonymous

10.  Pretend Victimhood

Examples include 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.

Here, the passive-aggression is manipulation and exploitation of the partner’s good will, guilty conscience, sense of duty and obligation, or protective and nurturing instinct, in order to extract unreasonable benefits and concessions.

If you find yourself in a passive-aggressive relationship, there are many strategies and skills you can utilize to help restore health, respect, and cooperation. In my book (click on title): ““How to Successfully Handle Passive-Aggressive People”, you will learn how to maintain composure, ways to be proactive instead of reactive, eight powerful strategies to handle passive-aggressive behaviors, how to set boundaries diplomatically but firmly, keys to effective communication in personal relationships, and seven types of power you can utilize to compel cooperation.

nipreston.com/publications
Source: nipreston.com/publications
nipreston.com/publications
Source: nipreston.com/publications

For tips on how Passive-Aggressives can attain greater communication and relational effectiveness, see my book (click on title): “A Practical Guide for Passive-Aggressives to Change Towards the Higher Self”.

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Preston Ni, M.S.B.A. is available as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and private coach. For more information, write to commsuccess@nipreston.com, or visit www.nipreston.com.

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

*This type of passive-aggressive behavior should be distinguished from the normal “cooling off” period after a dispute, where some healthy distance might be needed before reconnecting. A passive-aggressive uses the distance as emotional punishment, rather than restoration.