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How to break the cycle of passive-aggressive behavior
in relationships


You don’t need to know the exact definition of passive aggressive behavior to recognize it. Because you’re not just looking at symptoms in what the other person is doing -- you can also pay attention to what you experience. There’s a certain way they say “Yes” that makes you crazy. Because you know they don’t mean “yes”… but how can you argue with somebody who says “yes” to you?


Passive-aggressive behavior in married couples is the topic of many comic strips and sitcoms. Typically, passive aggressive men are shown hidden behind their newspaper, muttering “Yes, dear” without paying attention. Or: passive aggressive women are shown outwardly complying with their husband’s wishes, only to thwart them as if by accident. Or: one spouse uses silence to control issues...


Dealing with passive aggressive people can be crazymaking. You feel dismissed, shut down, ignored… but in a subtle enough way that you don’t know how to react. At some point, you explode. Over time, this can turn into a vicious cycle: passive aggressive behavior begets anger and finger-pointing, which in turn begets more passive-aggressive behavior.


How to break the cycle?

Stop thinking of it as a deficiency of your partner (and your partner alone). Instead, think of it as a dance that the two of you are involved in.

Among the causes of passive aggressive behavior is fear of conflict. The more your partner sees you as a formidable opponent, the more they’ll take what feels to them like the cautious approach: they won't be confrontive, they'll hide their true feelings even from themselves, they'll try to get on with the program... and they'll end up being passive-aggressive.

As this happens, you feel increasingly irritated. You get angry, and they perceive as increasingly formidable... So their aggression gets even more buried, and manifests in more hidden ways...

Lead by example: Take responsibility for your own actions. Admit your role in the dance--the ways your partner may feel intimidated by your more overt aggression. Commit to making it safe for your partner to express anger (I say "express", not "act out" anger).

In the long run, bringing out the issues and feelings in the open will help you deal with them squarely.


What I'm talking about is "cleaning up" the communication: making the hidden aggression visible, so that the real underlying problems can be addressed instead of being hidden behind the ongoing frustrations of passive aggression.

Creating a climate of safe and open communication within your couple can go a long way toward changing the pattern of passive aggression, on the one hand, and anger and blame on the other hand.


See also: Couples counseling | Proactive therapy



See also: More articles on Relationships



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