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How to Know If You're Dating a Passive-Aggressive Man

The author has watched her passive-aggressive brother hurt unsuspecting women. His refusal to communicate honestly dooms any relationship.

Passive-aggressive behaviors can start in childhood and are unlikely to change.

Passive-aggressive behaviors can start in childhood and are unlikely to change.

Passive-Aggressiveness Is Deep-Seated

Some women make the mistake of laughing off a man's passive-aggressiveness. This is unsurprising since these behaviors are often depicted as humorous and harmless in the media. On television sitcoms, for example, they're shown for comic effect when a male character consistently leaves the toilet seat up, forgets his wedding anniversary, and neglects his wife and kids while watching football.

However, a wise and experienced woman knows that a man’s passive-aggressiveness is no laughing matter. In fact, it has the potential to cause her great psychological harm. Moreover, she understands that this behavior stems from his inability to communicate effectively and express his emotions openly—deep-seated deficiencies that make it impossible to have a viable relationship with him. By bottling up his feelings instead of discussing them, he can become angry, resentful, and vengeful.

Some women, merely grateful to have a guy who isn't exploding with rage, don’t even recognize his under-the-radar retaliation. Others see it but don’t appreciate its adverse effects on their well-being until it’s too late. Yet, women should keep in mind that these passive-aggressive behaviors aren't innocuous. A man who regularly demonstrates them can cause his partner to feel isolated, frustrated, confused, off-balance, and despondent.

Not a Victim, But an Observer

My intimate knowledge of passive-aggressive men comes from decades of observing one, my brother, as he dated various women during the past 30 years. While it wasn't my business to intervene in his romantic life, how I wanted to warn these women! I wanted them to know that this relationship was doomed and would leave them feeling muddled and doubting themselves. I yearned to alert them to my brother's decades-long pattern of withholding communication as punishment whenever his partner pushed for a deeper connection.

More than anything else, I wished to inform them that his passive-aggressiveness (and that of many men) was rooted in childhood and was unlikely to change. Our mother had been domineering and the more that she had tried to dominate my brother, the more he’d retreat and go silent. I watched him replay that dynamic as an adult with the women he was dating. He’d pull away whenever a partner pursued more than he was willing to give. Interpreting her actions as controlling, he resented them.

Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

  1. being sarcastic
  2. being resentful
  3. bottling up hostility
  4. procrastinating
  5. complaining
  6. blaming
  7. arriving late
  8. sulking
  9. giving the silent treatment
  10. playing the martyr
  11. playing online games or watching excessive amounts of TV, especially sports

Long-Term Negative Impacts of Passive-Aggression

A woman who suffers physical abuse at the hands of her partner often has outward signs that reveal her trauma, whether it’s a black eye, bruises, or broken bones. A woman who’s the recipient of a partner’s passive-aggressiveness, though, has no such obvious proof. In addition to family and friends not recognizing the mistreatment, she may fail to see it herself. As a result, she may let it continue so long that it shatters her psyche and shakes her confidence.

Cathy Meyer, a certified divorce coach and marriage educator, experienced these pernicious effects firsthand with her spouse. She now helps those in similar situations. Recalling that painful time, she comments: “By the time my marriage to my passive-aggressive husband came to an end I had no self-esteem...The loneliness I experienced in my marriage was worse than any I had ever felt as a single woman.”

5 Reasons to Avoid Dating a Passive-Aggressive Guy

1. He doesn't listen.

2. He gives the silent treatment.

3. He bottles up his anger.

4. He's always late.

5. He procrastinates.

1. He Doesn't Listen

When visiting the home of her passive-aggressive uncle, Serena watches him hold the phone to his ear and “listen” to his girlfriend on the other end while simultaneously watching an NFL game. He makes the obligatory yes, no, and uh-huh sounds but barely takes in a thing that she says. Hearing only a smidgen of this or that, his lack of active listening makes future misunderstandings in their relationship inevitable.

A man who isn't passive-aggressive deals with such situations in a direct way. He might inform his girlfriend that he's watching the game and will call her later. To prevent problems in the future, he may ask her to refrain from calling on Sundays during football season. Whatever his solution is, he deals with the issue in a straightforward way so there's no confusion and the problem is resolved.

A passive-aggressive man, though, plays the role of Mr. Nice Guy by staying on the phone. He's furious that his viewing has been disrupted so he retaliates by only pretending to listen. While many passive-aggressive guys like Serena's uncle use TV as their favorite tool of avoidance, others use cell phones, computers, and video games.

2. He Gives the Silent Treatment

Tonya will never forget the uncomfortable situation that her passive-aggressive brother-in-law created on the day of her son's baptism. A small group of family and friends gathered at her home following the ceremony, including her brother-in-law and his girlfriend at the time. Tonya found out later that the two of them had been discussing moving in together and it ended in an argument. Her brother-in-law, mad at his girlfriend, was giving her the silent treatment in retaliation.

His inconsiderate behavior that day not only put a damper on this significant occasion but opened Tonya's eyes to his pettiness and immaturity. She realized how ill-equipped he was for a loving, reciprocal relationship. Moreover, it made her start to question why any woman would tolerate this conduct that she now saw as abusive.

According to professor of psychology, Dr. Kip Williams, getting the silent treatment from her man can emotionally devastate a woman. It can make her feel alone, ostracized, and unworthy. It can make her believe that she’s losing control of her life. Her self-confidence can plummet and depression can engulf her.

In this video, Dr. Shaler details how a woman can tell if she's living with a passive-aggressive man.

3. He Bottles Up His Anger

Young people today can't imagine being unable to express themselves in-person and online. They find it both empowering and cathartic. They may be shocked that previous generations were largely discouraged from being so open and free. In fact, young people in the past were told to be discreet and keep their feelings inside, especially the “ugly” ones such as anger, hate, and jealousy. They were told to suffer in silence or others would view them as weak.

In these more enlightened times, though, we know that bottling up our emotions is unhealthy. It can lead to problems such as drug addiction, overeating, alcoholism, depression, and suicide. In our relationships, it can cause communication to break down, mistrust to intensify, and misunderstandings to snowball.

It’s not surprising that many passive-aggressive men grew up in environments where their emotions got suppressed. As a result, their inner lives were neglected. Dr. Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author, explains why this makes them bad bets for relationships. She writes of them:

“They’re typically raised in families where it’s not safe to express anger—they’re never taught to communicate it in a healthy manner. They adapt by channeling these feelings into other less obvious behaviors; this gives them a sense of power and control. They’re masters at shirking responsibility by hurting you in ways that appear unintentional or unavoidable. Passive aggressive people operate by stuffing anger, being accommodating, and then indirectly sticking it to you.”

4. He's Always Late

Another maddening habit of passive-aggressive men is repeatedly arriving late. I can’t count the number of times that my family and I waited at restaurants for my brother to make his appearance. Without a doubt, it can negatively impact the emotional well-being of the person who’s left sitting there, making them feel put upon and inconsequential.

Some mental health professionals argue that perennial tardiness reveals a more serious problem than simply poor time management. They contend that those who always arrive late are flaunting their superiority. The unspoken message is: I’m so busy and important that I can’t show up when expected.

However, other mental health experts such as psychotherapist, Michael Formica, say that the opposite is actually true. He writes: "The chronically tardy, in large measure, have a perception that others do not feel them to be important, so they operate in a way so as to impose themselves on a situation—exerting control to feel in control—while in reality they are silently validating their own sense of unworthiness, whether consciously or unconsciously."

In my own experience, Mr. Formica’s take rings true. My brother and I grew up in a home where we weren't made to feel valued and often felt invisible. As adults, we both struggle now with low self-esteem and paralyzing social anxiety that can make us steer clear of gatherings. When my brother arrives late for family get-togethers or dates, he’s displaying apprehension and not arrogance.

Instead of communicating what's bothering him, a passive-aggressive man gets revenge by going silent.

Instead of communicating what's bothering him, a passive-aggressive man gets revenge by going silent.

5. He Silently Retaliates

When opening the sliding glass door that leads to the dilapidated deck, visitors to the home where Rachel and her passive-aggressive husband live are greeted by a sign that reads: Unsafe. Keep off! It's been that way for almost four years with little chance it will get mended any time soon. While it may be a difficult and expensive fix for some homeowners, Rachel's husband is both an architect and structural engineer who could do the work himself over a weekend.

His time and expertise, though, don’t matter. Repairs on the deck are deferred because he’s fuming inside about things that Rachel has done that he’s disliked. These include bringing home a stray cat, buying an expensive piano, and inviting her girlfriend to stay at their place for a week. He's stockpiled his hurts for years and now is quietly exacting his revenge by not fixing the deck.

The more that his wife asks him to do so, the more he digs in and tells her that he will but never does. Like many passive-aggressive men, this is his silent scheme of revenge that could make any unsuspecting woman feel confused, frustrated, and disheartened. Darlene Lancer, a marriage and family therapist, sums up the futile dynamic well: "Because you can’t have an honest, direct conversation with a passive-aggressive partner, nothing ever gets resolved. They say yes, and then their behavior screams NO."

Final Thoughts

While I love my brother dearly, I’d steer any woman away from dating him. As a passive-aggressive guy, he lacks the communication skills that are necessary to have a happy, successful marriage and family. Because he grew up with our overbearing mother, he balks at anything that makes him feel like he’s surrendering to a woman’s authority. He resents feeling controlled, even in the normal ways that are expected in committed unions such as attending social gatherings as a couple or splitting household chores.

However, if a woman is determined to make her relationship work, I highly recommend Living With the Passive-Aggressive Man by Dr. Scott Wetzler. He offers a more hopeful perspective on making such a coupling succeed along with valuable techniques for dealing with these folks. Even those of us who'd never become romantically involved with a passive-aggressive person encounter them in our daily lives: on the job, in the community, and in our families. Therefore, we can all benefit from learning the most effective ways to interact with them.

What do you think?

Questions & Answers

Question: Should I keep dating a guy who gives me the silent treatment?

Answer: When making this decision, don't focus solely on that one behavior (the silent treatment) because that would be a huge mistake. It's better to see the big picture—that his PA personality style is highly impervious to change and will cause you years of grief. Passive-aggressive people such as him express their hostility in a covert way, whether it's giving the silent treatment, using sarcasm, criticizing, or withholding praise. Their behaviors may include procrastinating, arriving late, and happily agreeing to do things when they have no intention of following through on them. They often do these hostile acts with a smile on their faces and an agreeable attitude on the surface, throwing those around them off balance.

Don't ask: “Can I tolerate someone who gives me the silent treatment?” Ask instead: “Can I make a happy life with someone who can't communicate openly and effectively?” If you're being smart and honest, the answer would be an unequivocal “no!” Good communication is essential to any relationship, whether it's in business, with friends, with relatives and, most certainly, in romance.

We all are forced to deal with passive-aggressive folks throughout our lives. Most of us, though, do our darnedest to limit our interactions with them. We've learned the hard way to be resolute or they'll take advantage and drive us nutty. For example, I had a passive-aggressive friend who consistently arrived late for lunch and dinner dates. After a few of these instances, I firmly said: “I'll wait 15 minutes for you and then I'm gone!” I followed through with my threat and from then on her behavior miraculously vanished!

Few of us would willingly enter a relationship with a passive-aggressive individual, let alone a romantic one. Therefore, it's important that you look at yourself and figure out why you find such a person desirable. This may lead you into therapy and, with that, will come a whole new understanding of yourself and your childhood. That knowledge will serve you well as you move forward to new loves.

Question: Why are no solutions offered for the "passive aggressive" person? (Not just RUN AWAY)

Answer: I can certainly offer tips for dealing with passive-aggressive relatives, co-workers, or neighbors as most of us need to do this at one time or another. They would essentially amount to limiting one's time with them and not expecting them to change. However, since this article is specifically about dating a passive aggressive man, I couldn't in good conscience recommend ways to try and make it work. That's because passive aggressiveness is a personality trait that's hugely resistant to change. Being married to a man who behaves in this silently hostile way would be a major source of heartache and frustration for any wife.

Dating is a time to discern whether it's a match that portends a happy and healthy future together. It's not a time to look at a man as a project like so many gals foolishly do. A woman should never be in a relationship with the idea that she'll change her partner. She must accept him “as is.”

If, however, you're hell-bent on staying in a relationship with a passive aggressive guy, you can see if he's open to change. Explain to him that you read an article about passive aggressive behaviors and realized how you sometimes behave that way. Say that you're highly motivated to change this about yourself and request his help. Ask him to point out your passive aggressiveness when it happens.

This is a tactic that will get him thinking about the topic but won't make him defensive. After all, he may have deeps wounds from his childhood that prevent him from dealing with people directly and assertively. He may be frightened to do so.

Therefore, go about this in a gentle way and appreciate any small changes. If he communicates in a straightforward way, be sure to point it out and compliment his behavior. Be a positive role model by handling conflict in a mature and straightforward way without drama. Even if the relationship ends, you will have helped him understand what passive aggressiveness is and how it prevents us from communicating effectively.

© 2017 McKenna Meyers