When Passive-Aggression Is the Third Party in Your Relations

Healthy boundaries can help you overcome passive aggressiveness.

Posted Aug 01, 2016

Big Stock Images
Source: Big Stock Images

When your partner is passive-aggressive, it can feel like passive-aggression is the third party in your relationship. Passive-aggressiveness not only hurts your bond with your partner, but it also hurts your relationship with yourself.

It's understandable if you think you must end a relationship with a partner you otherwise love because they behave passive-aggressively, but I promise you there's hope.

Healthy boundaries can help you overcome that damaging behavior and preserve your relationship.

For those in healthy relationships, boundaries are often so well established that you don't think of them as rules; they're just "the way I am" and "the way we are." But when passive-aggression is the third party in your relationship, it is vital to set healthy boundaries with your partner, especially when your partner may find even the concept of boundaries strange and uncomfortable. Your partner must know exactly what it is that's likely to make you angry or hurt, otherwise your partner can't meet your needs. More important, perhaps, you need to know your boundaries, because it's easy to lose sight of them in this kind of relationship.

Here are three important qualities of healthy boundaries:

1. Clarity — It's clear in your mind where you end and your partner begins, and your partner is equally clear.

2. Protection — With healthy boundaries that are respected, you feel safe and you're in control of how close others get to you, and they know what lines they should not cross.

3. Flexibility — You have the confidence and freedom to change your boundaries and limits when you feel the situation calls for it, not when someone pushes you.

Setting clear, flexible, protective boundaries is essential to a healthy relationship. When you develop and assert your boundaries, you can begin to bring the cycle of passive-aggressive behavior to an end.

If you want to identify and set healthy boundaries with your partner, try this five-step exercise that I've developed over my thirty-five years working as an anger management therapist and couples counselor:

1. Find a place where you can be quiet for a half hour or so.

2. Make a list of recent issues in your relationship.

Describe the last time you felt angry because of something your partner said or did. What happened?
Describe the last time you were hurt by something your partner said or did. What happened?
Identify one thing you would change about your partner's behavior if you could.
Identify one thing that could make you happier in your relationship.

3. Now, look over your list. Can you think of a boundary that would have kept you from feeling hurt or angry?

4. Use the list to come up with some emotional boundaries that you think might help your relationship. For example, if your partner always borrows your toothbrush and you'd like to change that habit, you might write, "I don't like sharing a toothbrush. It upsets me every time you use mine. I ask that you use your own."

5. Sit with your list for a few minutes. Do you feel comfortable with it?

Because these issues can be sensitive in a relationship with a passive-aggressive person, you may need to consider the process of sharing your list carefully. It might be best to ask your partner to come up with a list of his or her own and then "trade" with your partner one item at a time. Be wary if your partner, who is stuck in a passive-aggressive loop, quickly agrees to everything on your list. Watch their behavior, not just their promises.

Their actions will tell you much more about their actual willingness to respect your boundaries and meet your needs than their words ever will.

Is a relationship with someone who behaves passive-aggressively always doomed? No! Not if your partner is willing to respect your boundaries, identify and assert their own boundaries, and you can meet one another's needs. If your partner is truly committed to leaving the passive-aggressive cycle behind, exercises like this may help set you on the road to a healthier relationship. But, it's important to follow up on these conversations. In a few weeks, talk to your partner about what progress they've made, or not made, in respecting your boundaries.

Tolerance for passive-aggressive behavior varies from person to person, and it may also depend on your partner's positive characteristics. Understand, though, that you may reach a place where ordinary steps like asking for what you need are not enough. If you set boundaries with your partner and they still don't respect your limits, it may be time to leave.

But, unlike what you may have heard before, passive-aggressive behavior doesn't have to spell death for your relationship, as long as you're both open and honest about your boundaries, your limits, and your needs.

If you want to learn more about healthy boundaries, please visit my website at [], follow me on Facebook sign up for my newsletter, or join me at one of my upcoming Mindful Anger workshops.