Dealing with the Passive Partner
Tips for making your partnership more of a partnership.
Posted December 14, 2013 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Whatever you suggest is fine. Everything is no problem.
Having a passive partner can feel like you are pushing a rope uphill, or probably more accurately, trying to play tug o’ war with the other side always letting go. They can be charming, interesting people, but the frustration comes when you feel like you are constantly doing the heavy lifting when it comes to decision-making.
Passivity is obviously at the “flight” end of the “fight or flight” stress-coping spectrum, and when stress goes up, generally so too does the passivity. Like other parts of our personalities, all this originates in our childhood, centered around anxiety.
Some learn this through modeling — this is how my mother coped in her own childhood and her marriage and I do the same. Some by bouncing off siblings — because my brother was always angry, I decided to cope and get attention by staying under the radar and making no waves.
Here are some of the underlying dynamics and nuances that can keep passivity going:
Generalized passivity. For those who have grown up in chaotic, abusive, not-safe childhood environments where others had the corner on anger and aggression, "going along with" makes sense and becomes the primary approach to stress and relationships. The passivity is not particularly about you; these folks' first response in any stressful situation is to drop the rope.
Trouble with transitions. Another way of coping with a chaotic environment is to have control – not of others but of your routines and running of your life. John knows in his mind on Monday what he is going to do on Saturday. Of course, he doesn’t tell his wife what he’s thinking. But God forbid she says on Friday that she’s thinking of having her mother come for dinner on Saturday. He feels rattled. While some folks at this point get irritable and angry, John just collapses — he adopts that “whatever” attitude.
I’m not worthy. This is basically about low self-esteem. I think of myself as stupid, that others are smarter and better than me; I can’t trust my own judgment and so look always to bigger, stronger others. While I may do okay on my own, in relationships I feel shaky, intimidated, and just collapse.
Perfectionism. Another variation on control. These folks learned to run on all-or-nothing black/white thinking and cope by doing what is Right. While doing it Right can sort-of work on a good day, under stress it gets to be too much. Like the transitions folks, these folks also collapse and become passive.
Trouble with emotions. Some do fine in being assertive – speaking up and saying what they want – when they have time to prepare and stress is low. But in a climate of strong emotions – a raging boss, an emotional partner – they can’t manage, either because of fear of confrontation, or simply feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Like the others, they collapse and give in.
The problem with childhood coping is that what works good-enough as a kid (i.e., keeps you alive) doesn’t work so well as an adult in a bigger world.
Okay, so what can you do to help? Some ideas:
Give a heads up. For those easily rattled by transitions, give them a head up. John’s wife needs to say on Tuesday that maybe she’s thinking of her mother coming over for dinner on the weekend. While still a bit upsetting (remember John mentally mapped out weekend on Monday), it gives him time to think it over and adjust, to figure out what he may want rather than collapsing. It’s not about mothers, but about adjusting to change.
Put your partner in charge. Rewiring of the brain and skill development comes from learning to be proactive rather than passively reactive. One way to do this is to ask your partner to be in charge of something — an upcoming vacation, a dinner for friends. Give sufficient notice. Say they can do whatever they want. Sound low-key and relaxed. Make it an invitation and non-pressured rather than a command.
And then take what you get — no criticism, no micromanaging. This is an experiment in and experience in proactivity, not about ideal vacations or dinner parties. Keep expectations low to none.
Support the expression of any negative emotions. Because passivity can be an auto-response to avoiding conflict and submerging negative emotions, anytime your partner expresses any negative emotion — frustration, irritation, annoyance, anger, disappointment — encourage the expression by remaining calm, by listening. It is not about the content, it is about helping your partner feel safe in expressing these types of feelings.
Talk about passivity. If you have been carrying the weight of decisions and have been feeling frustrated, get it on the table. Not about your carrying the load and feeling fed up, not raging about the other’s complacency, but about the passivity itself — your partner's apparent struggle to speak up and say what they want. Talk about appreciating your partners insights, inputs, ideas. See if you together can come up with a plan to change the dynamic.
Seek couple counseling. I’ve seen men and women who are “sent” by their partners to work on their passivity, and they show up not to work on it, but to once again replicate the problem and "go along with." This has limited value. Try couple's counseling instead so you can start out on an equal footing around who has what problem, and can work together as team to solve them.
The keys here are simple albeit difficult at times: Understand it is not about you. Watch your non-verbals. Avoid micro-managing. Provide lots of positive feedback. Don't be a martyr. Just do the best you can do.