John sat down in the seat of his pickup truck. He slammed the door and laid into the gas pedal, but just enough for it to be obvious.
He was furious with Cassie, his partner of five years, but he refused to tell her. She will figure it out once she realizes that I am not speaking to her. My silence will say it all.
Being a person that values transparency and open honest communication, John’s hushed angry actions caught Cassie by surprise. She wanted to resolve whatever caused the issue right away. She asked, “Are you upset?”
With a stoic facial expression and no eye contact, John remained silent.
She let it go, he’ll talk when he is ready. But, over the course of several days, John not only was silent, but he also avoided spending any time with her. He was like a stranger living in the same house.
Did John’s behavior exemplify passive aggression? Yes. He indirectly expressed negative feelings through the silent treatment, and his behavior was tinged with obvious signs of anger that he intended for her to notice.
Cassie had no idea what was wrong, and there wasn’t a starting point for her to place a finger on. She was frustrated and felt heartbroken. She knew that they couldn’t begin to resolve whatever was wrong if they were not speaking about it. John’s passive-aggressive behavior had happened before. She attributed it to his emotionally abusive childhood. But, even with that factor in mind, she began to not trust him. What is he telling his friends that he was not telling me? He isn’t giving them the silent treatment. What is the root of this dysfunction, and how can our relationship survive without open communication?
What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
Passive-aggressive behavior is a way of expressing negative feelings indirectly versus openly addressing them. It involves verbal, non-verbal, and avoidance techniques that indicate discontent without directly articulating it. Passive-aggressive behavior can be difficult to spot and challenging to prove.
Related: The ‘silent treatment’ as a coping mechanism – and how to move past it.
Here are some common passive-aggressive behaviors in relationships:
Your partner is being snarky or sarcastic, and their words may even appear as a compliment that feels hurtful and twisted to you. Their words may be said as a joke, one that you do not find funny, and your partner may also insist that you are either too sensitive or lacking humor.
You know something is out of alignment in your relationship, but you cannot put your finger on it. It eats away at you. If you ask your partner, it only seems to make matters worse.
Your partner agrees to do things but does not follow up on their promise (i.e., procrastinates, does a poor job, or has no intention of doing what they agreed to).
You are sure that your partner is upset with you even though they say that they are not.
Your partner is not talking to you, but you notice that they are talking with others. Your partner distances him or herself while giving you the silent treatment. They refuse to share with you what is wrong.
You begin to wonder if your partner is being honest with you, and you wonder if they are talking about you and your relationship behind your back.
It is normal to occasionally have a passive-aggressive moment. Something your partner did angered you to the core, but you buttoned your lips and decided to be silent. You knew that it was much healthier to openly communicate what troubled you, but in the heat of it, you chose to remain quiet (even though you did slam a few cabinet doors while doing so). Life and the sporadic release of pent-up emotions without verbally expressing them happens, but the key word here is ‘occasional’ – not habit.
Passive-Aggressive Habits: Harmful to Relationships
It is damaging to a relationship when passive-aggressive behavior becomes habit. When either partner regularly relies on habits that express negative feelings without openly talking about the issues, dysfunction and damage set in. Trust and mutual respect take a nosedive.
Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder
Repeated passive-aggressive behaviors can also be a sign of personality disorder. The American Psychological Association defines this mental health condition as, “a personality disorder of long standing in which ambivalence toward the self and others is expressed by such means as procrastination, dawdling, stubbornness, intentional inefficiency, ‘forgetting’ appointments, or misplacing important materials. These maneuvers are interpreted as passive expressions of underlying negativism.”
How to Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Your Relationship
Open communication is central to stopping passive-aggressive behavior from ruining your relationship.
When You are Passive-Aggressive
Perhaps it is you who is passive-aggressive? You can make small changes today to start putting an end to your passive-aggressive behavior.
You must first develop an awareness of when you feel negative emotions (such as anger). It is important to deal with your emotions rationally to ensure a positive outcome, and this takes mindfulness. When you feel negative emotions, learn to process them in a healthy manner. Find an outlet for anger and negative emotions rather than resorting to passive-aggressive behaviors. Outlets can be found in simple practices, such as physical exercise or journaling (getting your thoughts onto paper).
When negative feelings remain, even after attempts to process it all and use healthy outlets, it is crucial to talk with your partner. By promoting open communication in an environment that supports the expression of feelings, passive-aggressive behavior can be eliminated.
Removing Passive-Aggressive Behavior from Your Relationship
Couples that express anger and negative feelings in a healthy manner learn to resolve conflict and develop strong relationships.
Most of us have heard the words “we agree to disagree.” It is impossible for partners in any relationship to always agree. It is healthy to be prepared for disagreement.
Here are some simple steps to resolve conflict and avoid passive-aggressive behavior in a relationship:
Talk about it.
Listen to your partner. Promote open communication. Do not try to read your partner’s mind. Use good listening practices – do not interrupt, do not finish your partner’s sentences, avoid judging or jumping to conclusions, ask questions to show interest, and retain eye contact.
2. Determine boundaries.
Determine what triggers negative emotions and what leads to assertive avoidance in either partner. Set boundaries around joint solutions and each partner’s needs. Setting boundaries can be as simple as changing a listening practice. For example, “When I come to you with an issue, I would like for you to listen to me rather than try to resolve things for me. Sometimes, I just need a listening ear. I need to vent. When you try to fix things for me, I feel as if you are not hearing me, and that you do not trust my abilities.”
3. Avoid holding grudges.
Focus on today. When patterns of passive-aggressive behaviors form in a relationship, it can be hard to forget and forgive. Moving forward in a healing way requires letting go of the past and focusing solely on today. This means letting go of any expectations that negative patterns will return.
4. Execute the plan and continue to communicate.
Once you have talked it through, set boundaries, move forward, and execute the plan. Decide to talk regularly and evaluate how things are going.
Conflict in a relationship will always happen. Do not expect perfection. Instead, focus on supporting each other and taking continual steps that deepen your relationship.
Break Past the Hurtful Behaviors and Gain the Relationship You Desire
If you feel that you have done all that you can do and you are struggling with passive-aggressive behaviors in your relationship, it may be time to reach out for help.
Know that sometimes we all need a little help. We can navigate this together!
We want to help you and your partner develop a deeper connection, recognize and fight dysfunction, and heal your relationship.