“Passive aggressive” is a term that has become more widely used, yet understanding and explaining what that means can be as frustrating as living or working with someone who is passive aggressive. The frustration often comes about because the passive aggressive person’s indirect expression of hostility is not honestly owned by them. The recipient of the hostility finds it hard to name and ask for recognition of the hurt and an apology. Passive aggression is a way of exerting power over the real or imagined control exerted by others and can leave the the recipient feeling utterly powerless.
The use of passive aggression can lead to an imbalance in relationships as it is unhealthy for one person to hold the majority of the power and control. This kind of relationship can seem more like a Parent – Child relationship than an adult one.
So what are the passive aggressive behaviours to look out for?
- Resistance to taking personal responsibility (the power to keep feelings secret)
- Procrastination (the power to take one’s own sweet time)
- Stubbornness (the power to be rigid and inflexible)
- Sulking (the power to withhold love)
- Learned helplessness (the power to withhold collaboration)
- Forgetfulness (the power to avoid thinking about personal responsibility)
- Martyrdom (the power to feel better than others)
It would be easy to judge and criticize someone who uses passive aggressive behaviours but this can perpetuate the problem and lead to entrenched conflict in relationships. Perhaps it is more useful to understand how passive aggression comes about. People with passive aggressive behaviours tend to have had highly controlling parents. They are more likely to be withdrawn and hide aspects of their personality (like anger). A child who is criticized, shouted at or rejected when they express natural emotions learns to repress their feelings (this is an unconscious process). Passive aggression is a learned response to trying and failing to meet parents’ or others’ exacting standards.
Repression of feelings doesn’t make them go away, in fact we don’t want them to go away as they are necessary to prompt us into getting our needs met. If we repress feelings instead of expressing them we still have to find ways of getting our needs met and this is usually by lying, manipulating or pretending to be the “perfect” husband/wife/son/daughter/friend/colleague etc.
This level of subterfuge doesn’t sit comfortably with most people’s integrity and the end result is a feeling of shame (shame is about who we are) or guilt (guilt is about what we have done/haven’t done). No wonder so many people resent authority figures when those figures remind them of their shame and guilt.
How can I tell if I am living with someone who is passive aggressive?
Alongside the behaviours listed above there are noticeable character traits:
- Being a a people pleaser
- Being a perfectionist
- Having low self-esteem
- Fearing rejection
- Being very sensitive to criticism
- Avoiding conflict
- Being unable to express emotions
It can be particularly difficult to be in a romantic relationship with someone who uses passive aggressive behaviours. Relationships require emotional intimacy and this is damaged by secrecy and unowned feelings. Trust can only be present when we feel we really know the other person. Living with passive aggression can feel draining (on both sides).
Something humans are exceptionally good at is projecting the feelings we find uncomfortable onto others. Passive aggressive behaviours can be a way of someone projecting their anger/resentment/frustration/guilt etc. onto us so that we experience the feelings they don’t want for them. This can feel confusing (as we aren’t sure who the feelings really belong to) and disempowering (we can only ever really use our own feelings to prompt us into action). We can often feel responsible when really the responsibility belongs to the other person. For example, when someone close goes into a sulk (a common passive aggressive behaviour) we may feel annoyed and express this to them. Or, we may feel anxious (because we don’t know what’s wrong) and try to guess what’s bothering them. It’s not our responsibility to confront someone else’s discomfort or try to work them out – it’s their responsibility to identify how they are feeling then put this into words.
What can I do when someone is passive aggressive?
Things that are helpful are:
- Being patient – remember that inside the person feels afraid
- Learn to distinguish who feelings belong to
- Treat them as an equal to help them feel more valued
- Check with yourself if you have been overly controlling, if not, know that you haven’t caused this
- Rather than criticize, invite them to think in a collaborative way about how they can be part of the solution
- Talk about the behaviour to encourage expression rather than repression
- Model how to express feelings
Someone who is passive aggressive has been holding onto a backlog of anger and resentment for a long time. Often the behaviour is normalized by others, e.g. “Oh, he’s just like his Dad!”. Just because the behaviour has been learned from someone else, it doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. If the root of the behaviour began before your relationship, encouraging your partner to work through this with an uninvolved person (such as a counsellor) may be helpful.