Do you know someone who is overtly cooperative but covertly defiant? Do you live or work with a person who chronically procrastinates, carries out tasks with intentional inefficiency, or acts as if he or she is the victim of your impossibly high standards? If you know this feeling of being on an emotional roller coaster, chances are good that you are dealing with a passive-aggressive person.
Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009). It involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger. In the long run, passive-aggressive behavior can be even more destructive to relationships than aggression. Over time, relationships with a person who is passive-aggressive will become confusing, discouraging, and dysfunctional.
Below, I share a real-life passive-aggressive encounter between a husband and wife, and explain how they could confront and change this destructive pattern of interaction using the process of "benign confrontation."
For many, confrontation is a scary prospect: Whether out of fear of receiving a person’s anger or out of discomfort with exposing someone’s emotions, some people spend a lifetime hiding from face-to-face, direct communication about others' behavior. Passive-aggressive individuals know this. They bank on it. In fact, they often select their adversaries based on who will be least likely to attempt to unmask the anger that they so desperately want to keep hidden.
The bad news for those who shy away from confrontation is that without directly addressing passive-aggressive behavior, the pattern will play out against them again and again. The good news is that benign confrontation is nothing to be afraid of. It is not an in-your-face, anger-inspiring, make-them-admit-what-they-did kind of authoritarian tactic. Rather, it is a quiet and reﬂective verbal intervention skill in which an adult gently but openly shares his or her thoughts about a person’s behavior and unexpressed anger. It is based on the decision not to silently accept a person’s manipulative and controlling behavior any longer.
See how the six-step process of benign confrontation plays out in this husband-wife dynamic:
Richard liked to relax at night when he got home from work. He loved his family, but when it came to the evening hours, he wanted time to himself. And for the month of January, he had had it this way. In helping their 2-year-old daughter, Hayley, adjust to a “big-girl bed,” his wife, Kelly, had taken full responsibility for the bedtime routine. By February, Hayley was able to settle down within 15 minutes and stay in her bed to fall asleep. One night, Kelly asked Richard if he could put Hayley to bed. Richard agreed with the request and went upstairs with Hayley.
From downstairs, Kelly could hear squeals of laughter. She thought to herself, “How nice that they are getting some playtime together.” After 20 minutes passed by, she heard the loud slam of a closet door, and wondered if Hayley needed a new diaper or change of pajamas. When 30 minutes had gone by and loud music started to play from Hayley’s room, Kelly could feel her anger rising. Forty-ﬁve minutes after she asked Richard and Hayley to go upstairs for bedtime, Kelly went up to the room and opened the door. Hayley was out of her ﬂeece pajamas and in a bathing suit, sun hat, Barbie sunglasses, and a pair of brand new, too-big, hot pink water shoes.
Hayley ran to her mother with a huge, wide-awake smile: “Bedtime so fun!”
Kelly glared at Richard and exited the room quickly. When he returned downstairs another 35 minutes later and faced Kelly’s angry barrage of questions about what he was thinking and why he would defy the soothing bedtime routine she had worked so hard to create, Richard feigned innocence: “What? We were just having some fun!”
The situation was clear; Richard didn’t want to bother with bedtime routines. Rather than tell Kelly this, and risk an argument over sharing childcare responsibilities, he chose a passive-aggressive response to the situation. The cunning of his personal choice was unmistakable: If Kelly had argued with his stated intention of having fun with his daughter, she would surely have appeared an uptight, no-fun mother—and an overly controlling wife. Richard’s strategy netted a significant short-term win for both his daughter and him: Hayley thoroughly enjoyed bedtime that night and thought her Daddy was the coolest in the world—and Richard would not be called upon to help with this evening responsibility for months to come. Winning a battle, however, sometimes results in losing the war. The long-term impact of chronic passive-aggressive behavior on Richard’s marriage was already beginning to take its toll.
Not wanting to continue harboring feelings of chronic irritation toward her husband, but also unwilling to carry all of the childcare responsibilities on her own, Kelly can use benign confrontation to communicate with Richard about the incident.
1. Know it when you see it.
Once Kelly is aware of typical patterns of passive-aggressive behavior, she can recognize that her husband is expressing unspoken reluctance to give up his evening free time through the intentional undoing of an established bedtime routine. Rather than responding with anger or having a bedtime tantrum worthy of their 2-year-old, recognizing Richard’s behavior for what it is will help Kelly keep her cool.
2. Decline the invitation to argue.
While Kelly waits downstairs for Richard to put Hayley to bed, she should manage her rising anger through self-talk strategies: “Richard didn’t want to put Hayley to bed tonight. Rather than telling me in words, he is showing me through this passive-aggressive behavior. I will not allow myself to get caught up in a no-win argument.”
3. Acknowledge the anger.
When Richard returns downstairs, Kelly should share her thoughts about his underlying anger.
KELLY: I have a thought I’d like to share with you. I asked you to put Hayley to bed tonight. You agreed without hesitation, and I appreciated that. When you spent over an hour upstairs and played instead of settling her down, it disrupted her bedtime routine. I know I have explained how important the routine is, so what I am wondering is why you decided to change it.
RICHARD: We were just having some fun. Geez. Why can’t you just relax a little?
KELLY: I just can’t help but think that there is more to it than that. I am wondering if a part of you may be upset with me for having asked you to put Hayley to bed when what you really wanted to do was relax downstairs. Is it possible that you went overboard with the fun and games so that tomorrow night I would be less likely to ask you to take charge of bedtime again?
4. Manage the denial.
No matter how non-threatening the language Kelly chooses (Is it possible that; My sense is that; I am wondering if...), it is almost certain that Richard will cling to his story that he and his daughter were just enjoying their time together. If Kelly were to push harder, Richard would likely become more defensive and justify his role as the fun-father victim of an overly rigid mother. If she were to use angry “you” messages or seek revenge in a counter-passive-aggressive way, she would reinforce his original passive aggression. It will best serve Kelly to simply leave Richard with her thought, as demonstrated below:
RICHARD: I don’t know what you are talking about. I got her to sleep, like you asked. I haven’t spent time with her all day. Lighten up!
KELLY: Okay. It was just a thought I wanted to share with you.
5. Go there again (when necessary).
The next time Kelly asks Richard to put Hayley to bed (or share a different parenting responsibility), it will be essential for her to communicate clear expectations and her thought process behind them. Though this may go a long way in preventing predictable passive aggression, similar situations will inevitably arise that relate to household or childcare responsibilities—and when they do, Kelly should remind Richard of the thoughts she shared after the bedtime incident:
KELLY: Richard, I have a thought about what is going on here. This situation feels a lot like the one we had last week when I asked you to put Hayley to bed. I shared with you then that I thought you might have been angry at me. I am wondering if the same thing might be going on right now.
6. Build the relationship.
At a later point, it will be worthwhile for Kelly to afﬁrm the strength of Richard's bond with Hayley and ways that he might enjoy their time together. By building in free time for Richard at home, Kelly may help him feel more open to sharing parental responsibilities. When she acknowledges the household responsibilities that he does well, Kelly can chip away at the hostility he feels at his “relaxation” time eroding. In partnership with the benign confrontation of unacceptable passive-aggressive behavior, both members can nurture and strengthen the overall relationship. This, in turn, defuses some of the angry feelings that would otherwise fuel the next passive-aggressive argument.
For more information on understanding and changing passive-aggressive behavior, visit www.signewhitson.com or check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces.