Love and the Passive-Aggressive Personality

How to set boundaries and stick to them.

Posted Jun 03, 2015

Source: Racorn/Shutterstock

How you and your partner handle anger and conflict plays a key role in the success of your relationship. Rewarding connection is incompatible with suppressed feelings and restricted communication.

When the person you love is passive-aggressive, emotional honesty and open dialogue are difficult. Passive-aggression can be a hard game to play as a partner, even for the most emotionally healthy and stable individual. The game is winnable, though, if you use strategies aimed at reducing your partner's passive-aggressive behavior.

Passive-aggressive people are often so removed from their own emotions, they don't recognize anger when they feel it, even when their body sends them signals that they're upset. By learning to recognize a few body language signs, you may be able to help your partner identify his or her feelings and examine their sources. There are obvious ones—clenched fists, crossed arms—but the subtler ones require a keener eye.

For instance, a downward gaze can be a sign of hurt feelings or an attempt to hide something emotional. Passive-aggressiveness often expresses itself through rigidity. If you try to hug your partner and his or her body seems to resist and is uncomfortable with contact, they may be angry.

If you can notice these body signs—and your own body is telling you that something is wrong—it may be useful to try to open a discussion. As a rule, however, only describe things from your point of view.

  • Say: "I feel uncomfortable with the way you're looking at me. It feels like anger."
  • ... but don't say: "You're angry at me! What's going on?"

Remember, you want a conversation, not a confrontation, so wait until you're in a comfortable place emotionally to speak.

Your passive-aggressive partner may have difficulty setting his or her own boundaries, so you'll need to be firm about enforcing your own. If your partner's behavior has gotten to a point where you find yourself constantly questioning whether to stay in the relationship, but you're not yet ready to give up, it's time to set explicit limits.

Be specific about what bothers you and what behavior you find unacceptable. You want performance, not just a promise of compliance. Be specific about your expectations, too. If it's important to you that your partner gets to know your friends, for example, say, "I've invited a few friends over for dinner on Saturday at 7 P.M. I need for you to be there so you can meet them and talk to them."

If your partner shows up late and then barely says a word during dinner, it's vital that you communicate your displeasure clearly: "When you arrive late and don't speak to my friends, I feel that you're treating them and me with disrespect. If you care about me, then knowing my friends should matter to you."

If you're going to set explicit limits with your partner, you must be prepared to enforce them. For example, if you moved in with your partner six months ago and they still haven't made room for your stuff in a closet despite repeated requests, you need to set a clear limit: "I need you to clean out half the closet so I have a place to put my things. I'd like to have my stuff unpacked by Monday; otherwise I'm moving out."

If Monday rolls around and your partner still hasn't cleaned out space for you, you need to move out. If you say you'll move out and then don't, you're just confusing your partner.

You should wait to have a conversation about boundaries and limits until you have understood and released your own anger about your partner's behavior in a healthy, mindful way. You love this person and you want to be with them, so it's important to approach the conversation in a spirit of togetherness. Your goal in setting these limits is to safeguard your own boundaries and to make your relationship work, not to punish them. Let your partner know that you're telling them what to do (or avoid doing) if they also want to be with you.

Passive-aggression is an obstacle standing in the way of intimacy with your partner. While you can help a partner verbalize their feelings and tell them what is and isn't OK with you—and hold them accountable—you are the only person whose behavior you can control. Your partner can change, if they want to and are committed to trying. Together, you can disassemble passive-aggressiveness and pack it away in your past.

For more information on how to stop passive-aggressive behavior in its tracks, see my books.