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
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
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