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The Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle

How unsuspecting adults get caught up in passive aggressive dynamics.

The Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle explains how rational, straightforward, assertive adults can momentarily and unexpectedly depart from their typical personas and take on inappropriate, childlike, and unprofessional behaviors (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). It describes and predicts the endless, repetitive cycles of conflict that occur when a passive aggressive individual succeeds in getting someone else to act out their anger for them.

The Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle (PACC) helps observers to be able to look beyond behavior and better understand what is occurring beneath the surface. Take this real-life example of a seemingly minor conflict between a teacher and child that elicited an apparent major over-reaction by the adult:

Teacher: Jessie, can you please wheel the lunch cart out into the hallway?

Jessie: OK.

(Jessie doesn't move from his seat.)

Teacher: Jessie, will you please wheel the cart out now?

Jessie: Just a second.

(Again, Jessie doesn't move.)

Teacher: Jessie, that cart needs to go out now so that we can get started with math. I don’t want you to miss anything.

Jessie: I will. (Smiling.)

(For the third time, Jessie sits still in his seat.)

Teacher: I see you must be working in slow motion today, Jessie. Let's see if another student can move just a tad bit faster than you. Lisa, will you please wheel the lunch cart into the hall?

Jessie: No. I said I would do it. (Gets up slowly).

Jessie wheels the lunch cart toward the classroom door, banging it against several desks along the way. He runs the cart over a classmate's foot. Just before reaching the door, he knocks the cart into the teacher's desk, knocking over a vase of fresh flowers. The glass vase shatters all over the floor. She momentarily loses control! The teacher from the classroom next door hurries over when she hears all of the noise.

Teacher: Jessie, you can't even carry out the simplest job in this classroom. Why can't you do anything right? You are going to clean that whole mess up, young man. And you'll do it after school because you are not going to interrupt my math lesson. I know that's what you were trying to do. Are you happy with yourself?

Jessie: (Looks briefly at the teacher from the classroom next door) No, ma'am. It was just an accident. I didn't know you'd be so upset about a kid making a mistake. I'm sorry.

Teacher: (Caught off guard with Jessie's response and embarrassed by her outburst) I'm sorry too, Jessie. I shouldn't have said that. Everyone makes mistakes. Let's all help Jessie clean this up.

To the observing teacher from next door, Jessie's teacher seems to have over-reacted to her student's mistake and engaged in cruel, humiliating behavior. Truth be told, it is any educator's responsibility to maintain emotional control and refrain from responses that belittle students.

Still, the Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle explains how this seemingly minor classroom incident escalated so quickly and is useful in providing educators and other adults with insight into how passive-aggressive behaviors can suddenly provoke relationship-damaging reactions in unsuspecting adults. Without insight into the PACC, adults are doomed to engage in these no-win conflicts time and again.

The following is a breakdown of the five stages of the PACC, with reference to how it played out between Jessie and his classroom teacher.

Stage 1: The Self-Concept and Irrational Beliefs of the Passive-Aggressive Person

Stage 1 represents a passive-aggressive person’s developmental life history. Based on specific formative events during his early life, Jessie has developed the belief that the direct expression of anger is dangerous and needs to be avoided. His psychological solution to this problem is to conceal his anger behind a facade of infuriating passive-aggressive behaviors, as we will explore further in Stage 4.

Jessie is proud of his ability to control anger and to remain rational and calm during conflict situations. He feels smart and clever about his ability to devise various ways to get back at others indirectly and without their knowledge. This awareness gives the person an emotional high and a feeling of power and pleasure at manipulating others so easily.

Stage 2: The Stressful Incident

When a passive-aggressive person is asked or told to do a specific task, the request often activates irrational beliefs, based on early life experiences:

  • I have to do everything in this classroom.
  • That teacher is always picking on me.
  • She is singling me out. I'll get back at her and she'll never even see it coming.

Indeed, for people like Jessie, ordinary, everyday requests from authority figures often trigger angry responses based on such irrational beliefs. Instead of expressing these angry thoughts aloud, however, the passive-aggressive person reserves his feelings for the moment. He pushes them below the surface because he is guided by the powerful set of irrational beliefs that anger = unacceptable.

Stage 3: The Passive-Aggressive Person's Feelings

The passive-aggressive person has learned over the years to defend against his angry feelings by denying them and projecting them onto others. Because the normal feelings of anger are unacceptable to him, they are masked and expressed in passive-aggressive behaviors.

Stage 4: The Passive-Aggressive Person's Behavior

The behavior of most passive-aggressive individuals is both purposeful and intentional. What's more, the passive-aggressive person derives genuine pleasure out of frustrating others. They engage in a variety of behaviors designed to "get back at" or infuriate others, including:

  • Denying feelings of anger
  • Withdrawing and sulking
  • Procrastinating
  • Carrying out tasks inefficiently or unacceptably
  • Exacting hidden revenge

Jessie procrastinated. He verbally complied with his teacher's request ("OK," "Just a second," "I will.") but behaviorally delayed. He eventually wheeled out the cart in a manner that was intentionally unacceptable. All of these purposeful passive-aggressive behaviors proved quite successful in eliciting an angry response from his teacher, who had no awareness of the trap she was falling in to.

Stage 5: The Reactions of Others

In a stressful situation, the person who behaves passive-aggressively will create feelings of anger in a target. If the target is unaware of this dynamic and acts on the feelings of anger, she will behave in uncharacteristic, relationship-damaging ways.

As is quite typical of a PACC, at first Jessie's teacher remained calm, accommodating his procrastination and temporary compliance. By the second and third requests, she was surely beginning to feel more agitated, though she continued her polite, assertive manner. At the fourth request, her irritation becomes apparent in the form of the sarcasm in her response.

For adults, sarcasm is often a red flag that they have begun to be caught up in a Conflict Cycle and are beginning to mirror a child's behaviors. With knowledge of the PACC, this could have been a good time for the teacher to check her own emotions, think about what was happening beneath the surface, and disengage from the dynamic with Jessie.

Instead, before she even knew it, she heard the clamor of banging desks, a student crying out in pain after having his foot run over by a heavy lunch cart, and a vase of flowers shattered all over the floor. She reacted in an instant, in frustration and with anger, her words belittling her student in front of all of his peers.

Jessie, still in perfect control of his emotions, feigns shock. He apologizes to the teacher, using appropriate words while also sending a clear, unstated message:

  • I don’t know why you got so angry. It was just a mistake.
  • I didn’t yell, swear, hit, or break anything. But what you did was scary. I don’t like to have someone blow up at me.
  • I don’t deserve to be yelled at in front of my classmates. I think you overreacted to this situation and mistreated me. Don’t you believe you owe me an apology?

The teacher, immediately feeling guilty about the temper tantrum, also feels embarrassed to have been observed in the moment by her colleague. She ends up apologizing profusely. When this happens, Jessie reluctantly accepts the apology, but in the meantime, his deep-rooted beliefs about the danger of anger have been confirmed. The only thing that is truly resolved in this situation is that the destructive interpersonal relationship between Jessie and his teacher will continue.

The majority of teachers, parents, spouses, and co-workers involved in daily interactions with passive-aggressive individuals are ultimately beaten down by the relationship. Most end up feeling confused, angry, guilty, and doubtful about the stability of their own mental health.

How is it possible for this destructive interpersonal pattern to occur over and over again with reasonable adults? How does it happen that the targeted adults end up accepting the blame and responsibility for this dysfunctional dynamic?

The answer is clear and painful: They are unaware of the psychology of passive aggression. (Long, Long & Whitson, 2008). Understanding and insight into the repetitive nature of the Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle can help adults disengage from destructive conflicts and choose relationship-building responses.

For more information on the Passive-Aggressive Conflict Cycle, please check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. or visit for online and live training opportunities in managing passive-aggressive behavior.