Webster’s defines a passive aggressive as being marked by or displaying behavior characterized by the negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in in unassertive passive way. Me, I define it as a polite attempt at pissing people off. Usually, the person displaying the passive aggressive attitude doesn’t want to appear angry. Now, in ordinary life, this behavior it sometimes useful. Maybe you don’t like someone, but you can’t work up the nerve to tell them so instead you avoid them all together. Problem solved. But in a relationship being passive aggressive is bound to cause more problems than it solves, if for nothing else, because this process and tends to talk around the problem instead of about it. So in this blog I’ll talk about it, how to recognize it and most importantly how to deal with passive aggressive behavior or not.
When trying to understand any type of behavior it is beneficial to be able to identify the cause of the behavior. For instance a child who is made to feel neglected or unloved may find themselves searching for the love and approval of a parent. When they get older, he/she may find themselves in a relationship where they are always trying to please their partner because that’s what makes them comfortable. Not the best example, but you get the point. Unfortunately, the experts haven’t been able to identify the cause of passive aggressive behavior. In the DSM passive aggressive is not even officially characterized as a personality disorder. Men will tell you the cause is an angry girlfriend or spouse. Seems about right. While the cards has not been determined, risk factors have. The two main risk factors are childhood abuse or neglect or harsh punishment. Harsh punishment, that’s any child who grew up on my block in the 80’s and we’re all okay, kinda? Since there’s no clear-cut explanation for the origin of this behavior, I employ my grandmother’s wisdom, “don’t worry about things that you cannot control”. Instead focus on the present and what situations trigger this behavior. Then at least maybe you can manage it or run for the door. Oh but how will one know when to run for the door?
Passive aggressive behavior is defined as a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson). Now before anyone could hope to deal with this behavior, one must first be able to recognize it. Here are some examples of passive aggression courtesy of Psychology Today:
1. Disguised Verbal Hostility– Negative gossip. Sarcasm. Veiled hostile joking — often followed by “just kidding.”
2. Disguised Relational Hostility– The silent treatment. The invisible treatment. Social exclusion. Neglect. Backstabbing.
3. Disguised Task Hostility– Procrastination. Stalling. Forgetting. Stonewalling. Withholding resources or information.
4. Hostility Towards Others Through Self-Punishment (“I’ll show YOU”)– Quitting. Deliberate failure. Exaggerated or imagined health issues. Victimhood. Dependency.
These behaviors are common when dealing with passive aggression. You may also notice certain phrases are you repeatedly by are passive aggressive friends. Let’s not act like we don’t know what these phrases are okay? I know I’ve uttered these phrases more than a few times and I’m sure that if you have in a relationship or if you’ve ever been in a relationship you’ve heard these phrases on more than one occasion:
– “Why are you getting so upset?”- Seriously? Remember passive aggressive people aim to disguise their anger and bring yours to the surface this phrase could be the catalyst.
– “I thought you knew”- A requisite of this behavior is being covert. Omitting information that could help ease a situation or avoid an argument but then asserting that a partner should know, only serves to create frustration and confusion.
– “Fine” or “Whatever”- Sulking and withdrawing from an argument are two primary strategies that are often employed by people with passive aggressive behaviors. They believe that confronting an issue head on will cause more problems in their life. By using the phrases “fine” or “whatever” they are immobilizing emotionally honest communication.
– “I’m not mad”- This is classic passive aggressive behavior. Instead of being upfront about their current emotional condition, the passive aggressive person seeks to hide their true emotional state.
In truth we have all been passive aggressive at one point in time or another and I’m sure we all ordered one of these phrases. Dealing with this behavior once in a while can be frustrating but manageable, but the chronic and persistent exercise of passive aggressive behavior, over time, will cause the deterioration of any relationship. To be honest I’m not positive if any of these strategies are exactly what your situation may call for. The best I can do here is recommend giving it a shot. As always patience and open communication are paramount and trying to work through any issues that you may have. And if all else fails there’s always Common Ground Relationship Coaching! Good Luck!