Passive Aggressive Behavior Takes Us Down
And how to recover from this pattern.
Posted December 14, 2018
Linda: It drove Sandy nuts when Robert repeatedly came home from work late.
She asked him respectfully to call her if he would be later than expected so that she wouldn’t worry. Robert would agree that her request was reasonable and yet continued to break his agreement.
When Sandy confronted him repeatedly about not holding up his end, he always said the same thing: ”I forgot.” This common refrain was his explanation about a large number of agreements he made with her and then broke.
At first, neither of them understood that what was causing their suffering was passive-aggressive behavior.
Robert was irritated by her request and didn’t really want to make the agreement about calling if he was late, but he didn’t feel entitled to express his anger at this wife directly. What he really wanted to say was that he felt controlled by the request and didn’t want to comply, but he couldn’t bring himself to say “no” to her. Robert didn’t want to risk disrupting the harmony he so desired in his marriage. His internal justification was, “It’s not worth the fight.”
Robert was blind to the fact that his chronic lateness was only one of the many examples where his lack of directness was punching holes in their trust. He was in the habit of making agreements he had no intention of keeping. By making excessive accommodations to Sandy’s desires, needs, and beliefs—while denying his own—he was the one who was disrupting their harmony.
At this early stage, Robert was not yet able to distinguish between taking a stand for his own views and desires, and non-productive fighting. He saw them as the same. His confusion on this point came from observing his family of origin: when his sister took a firm position on an issue, she suffered greatly for it. His sister was never forgiven for standing up to their mother and was alienated from the family. His association with directly telling the truth about his wants and needs was that it was dangerous.
Sandy’s family had been quite direct in their communication and was unwilling to continue in a system characterized by dishonesty, secrets, sneaky behavior, and broken agreements.
Their trust began to repair when Robert was able to express the grief around the loss of his beloved sister when she was banished from the family for having the audacity to defy his controlling mother. Robert began to connect the dots and see that his fear of loss had been silencing him for years.
Over time, Robert learned to speak directly. He became willing to say “no,” and to express opinions that did not align with Sandy’s. His acting out passive-aggressively was shed like an old dried-up snakeskin that has been outgrown.
At first, Robert observed his inner fight about telling the truth or keeping silent and his old habits prevailed. But due to his determination, it didn’t take long until he was able to break out of the old pattern of remaining silent. The old pattern finally gave way to him boldly yet respectfully speaking up for himself.
Robert was amazed to discover that this directness and frankness was actually the key to the harmony, safety, and cooperation he so desired. Another surprising bonus is that his own sense of personal power began to grow stronger as soon as he found his authentic voice.
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