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Define Passive Aggressive Behavior - Examples in Marriage and Relationships

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Define Passive Aggressive

Passive Aggressive (PA) describes conduct which is underhandedly hostile. It's indirect, often cloaking unspoken resentment. PA types don’t think to simply tell others they are angry with them or that they dislike them. They tend not to straightforwardly tell people “No”.

They’re unlikely to state precisely what the problem is for them, but others are somehow expected to know (mind read) and make things right. Some PA people use covert defiant sabotage to get their own way or to get back at others - and may draw much satisfaction from this.

Without a conclusive test to determine whether or not a person has this behavioral/personality disorder, the examples given below may help you if you have been wondering if this trait is present in your husband, wife or partner. In addition, there are some insightful strategies for dealing with a PA partner.

About You and your Partner

All three options below are classic Passive Aggressive behaviours if they happen repeatedly, but which of the three do you find the most problematic to contend with?

  • He or she says they forgot/procrastinates to do something you requested and which they agreed to do.
  • He or she says they misunderstood what was expected when you know it was all carefully clarified beforehand
  • He or she gives you the silent treatment, often for no apparent reason or for a very petty reason
See results without voting

Communication Skills are Lacking on an Emotional Level

Although passive aggressive men and women may function well in general, they tend to step around problems in their romantic relationships rather than initiate or openly engage in discussion or argument to get everything out in the open to reach agreement or agree to differ. They are conflict avoidant; extremely uncomfortable expressing their anger or fears. Manipulation is second nature to them, so much so that they probably do not realise when they are doing it. Even so, the effects can be devastating.

Particularly when faced with emotional or intimacy issues with their partner, they shut down - avoiding eye contact and acting as if the other person doesn't exist. A Passive Aggressive person just isn’t straight speaking and the spouse of a PA person has a very hard time trying to ascertain what their partner's disgruntlements actually are, let alone finding a workable solution that they will adhere to.

However, on the face of it the PA spouse may be a very pleasant, reasonable person. Indeed he or she may have a tremendous number of good points, and it is in these circumstances that it is even more difficult to comprehend their PA behavior.

When PA behavior occurs repeatedly in a marriage/relationship (see examples below) it can amount to Emotional Abuse, and it is enormously difficult to deal with on an ongoing basis.

Examples of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Marriage/Relationships

With the above Passive Aggressive definition in mind, here are some common examples of how a PA person in a relationship may behave.

  • Without prior notice a friend asks your PA spouse if he/she will walk said friend’s dog whilst they go out to the theatre for the evening and your spouse readily agrees with a smile. However, a few weeks later, when you unexpectedly ask your spouse to walk the family dog because you need to visit a sick elderly aunt, your spouse is most unhappy to do this and says that you should make the time to do it yourself before you go or when you come back from visiting.
  • Your PA partner complains that you have not have done something that they say is very important to them. When you apologise and say that you didn’t realise how deeply they felt about the issue they say you should have known. If you say you didn’t realise they felt so strongly about, for example, not putting the lid back on the toothpaste because they themselves often leave the top off the toothpaste, your assertion is dismissed or glossed over. Bottom line is they are quite comfortable and familiar with feeling angry and will find something/anything to be angry about. (In this scenario, it may well be that the toothpaste matter is not the deep reason for their anger.)
  • Your PA husband/wife regularly withholds emotional support, affection and/or intimacy due to some unspoken resentment which you will need to drag out of him or her if you are indeed able to do so.

In All Fairness

It's important to note that just about everyone engages in passive aggressive behavior from time to time. The frequency and degree to which a person acts out in these ways needs to be taken into account before "labelling" a person as passive aggressive. And just to confuse matters, what one person calls frequent, another may not!

Passive Aggressive Game Playing in Relationships

  • Your spouse often “forgets” your birthday and/or never wants to do anything to make your big day special even though you have patiently explained on numerous occasions that this means a lot to you.

    In "forgetting" birthdays/anniversaries a PA person can underhandedly get revenge for some real or imagined slight. Indeed some partners notice the PA spouse seems to cheer up measurably after causing an upset, although of course they deny this.

  • You become aware that your partner is giving you one word answers, only speaking where absolutely necessary, not initiating conversation or banter in the normal way of things. They are aggrieved about something and will not simply voice it but use silent treatment to punish you rather than talking about differences with a view to understanding each other and working towards a compromise or solution.

    Alas, sulking and withdrawing comes very naturally to PA people. Sometimes they will tell you what they are angry about but thereafter they stay angry (perhaps even angry at themselves because they veered from their usual path of keeping you in the dark as to why they are at odds with you). Doesn’t matter if they are angry at you or angry at themselves – same result – they give you the silent treatment.

  • If you try to tell your wife/husband they are being unreasonable when they display passive aggressive behavior, they will deny it and turn this assertion back on you.

    The problem here is that most everyone is unreasonable or passive aggressive to some degree on the odd occasion, and so this is an effective way for a PA person to redirect the focus of the discussion. Passive aggression become overly problematic depending upon the frequency and depth of the behavior together with the constant underlying anger and resentment. This leads to deep seated unhappiness and sorrow in marriage and relationships.

Beginnings and Consequences

Some passive aggressive people may have no idea they are so difficult to live with. Others are deliberate in their manipulative endeavours and know exactly how to get their own way. In any case, they generally have no knowledge of when, or why, they defaulted to this behaviour. It is likely that the root of this personality trait lies in childhood when, feeling overwhelmed by a disciplinarian or authority figure, a person develops methods of surreptitiously getting back at those who have power over them in ways which are covert or hidden, so as not to directly provoke further chastisement or rebuke.

In a long term relationship recurrent PA conduct has a very detrimental and negative impact on the couple and any children. Emotional uncertainty, despondency and/or exasperation can become the norm and, unfortunately but understandably, resentment can become rife for the lesser or non-PA partner - resulting in temptation to fight fire with fire. Getting revenge on a PA partner may give fleeting respite but, for the long term, resorting to antagonistic tit for tat antics cannot help any relationship.

Responding to a Passive Aggressive Partner

Fathoming how to best react is a challenge indeed. As alluded to above, the urge to act out in a like minded fashion should be resisted but endless passive acceptance doesn't help either. Reflect on your usual response and also assess whether or not you have drifted into the habit of allowing feelings of overwhelm to wear you down to the point where you silence, restrict or constantly second guess yourself. Over time, without realising it, partners of passive aggressives may comply with the dictates of their partner without question. When this happens, to save your sanity, it helps to take back control of yourself and to resolve to refuse to be so intimidated.

Carefully choose your battles and then plainly and concisely have your say and speak your truth in a measured manner. Even though your partner disapproves of such forthrightness and may punish you with their crazy making games, there comes a time when you need to take a stand. It’s easier said than done but well worth it if you don’t want to drown in sheer frustration or unhappiness.

As much as your passive aggressive partner may drive you to distraction, when countering them, constructive criticism trumps ranting any day. Even if ultimately they are unable or unwilling to concede anything at all, at least you know you took the best approach.

Silent Manipulation

The results of the survey near the start of this article reveal that silent treatment is a significant problem in these types of relationships and so learning how to conquer fear of silent treatment, and better cope with it, can be a central first step to increased peace of mind.

Are you intent on making your partner change their behaviour?

Don't Waste Your Time

As far as change is concerned, the one and only person you can change is yourself. It's crucial to fully accept that you cannot make your PA partner mend their ways. People can only truly change if and/or when they choose to. That said, since PA people normally deem they are perfectly fine as they are, it’s very unlikely they will make any real effort to alter their behaviour. Further, for many, even if they wanted to change, they may not be capable of sustained change.

Perhaps the best you can hope for is that at some point your PA partner may desist from some of the PA ways if they find that they are no longer able to so easily manipulate you.

The frustration of being with a PA partner can lead to incessant soul searching in terms of what’s next for the relationship and if the PA person possesses a number of admirable traits alongside their PA behaviours, this serves to make relationship decisions that much harder.

Everyone’s circumstances, wants and needs are different so ultimately you may choose to live with the status quo, leave the relationship, or remain in the relationship whilst detaching yourself from the crazy making passive aggressive drama. By consciously taking responsibility for making your own joy in life despite the difficulties of the relationship, you might save your own sanity and elect to stay together for the time being or for the duration - as necessary or as desired

If you are intimidated or confined by your Partner's Passive Aggressive behaviour, it's time to take stock.

Going Forward

People and relationships are rarely perfect! Depending on the extent and regularity of PA conduct, some find that they are able to rise above such behaviour, detach emotionally somewhat and lead a full and contented life. For others, needing to detach is not acceptable or simply not the way they choose to live their life. When weighing everything up, talking things through with an unbiased third party or a counsellor could help get things in perspective and progress your decision making.

Please note: If you are experiencing, or are in fear of, physical harm from your partner, it's important to promptly seek local qualified professional help and advice. You should also seek help if you are suffering severe or ongoing emotional abuse.

© 2014 Ebonny

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8 comments

Au fait profile image

Au fait 2 years ago from North Texas

I'm glad you defined passive-agressive behavior. So often people write about things but never make it clear what that thing really is.

From your examples, I think everyone I work with, management as well as coworkers, are PA! Very interesting article. Voted up and IU! Going to share because this is good info for everyone to know.


Ebonny profile image

Ebonny 2 years ago from UK Author

Au fait: Thank you for your observations and sharing (and I'll be writing more hubs on this topic soon. - lots more to say!)

I think the majority of us have some passive aggressive traits, but thakfully not so much that it causes major problems much of the time. Unfortunately for others it is engrained, habitial, potentially soul destroying behaviour.


alfaprima profile image

alfaprima 2 years ago from Waterloo, Belgium

Thanks for all the comments...we keep researching here about the origin of passive aggression as a defense, and come to the conclusion that people who had insecure mothers, which produced a sense of helplessness in the baby, are part of this picture. When you feel exposed, helpless and depending on others, is best o hide, and if hiding is impossible, doing passive aggression allows to express some of the old anger, resentment and feelings of "not being good enough."

What is the solution progressive interactions where the person is told what will happen, and then do exactly what is the promised action, telling what has been done. So, the person begins to be the receiver of coherent, purposeful actions that can be received as caring, respectful and nourishing. Of course, it takes time and dedication to send this coherent message so the other person can really learn how to trust, and how to be open. More to follow...


Ebonny profile image

Ebonny 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi Alfaprima

Thank you for your thoughtful and heartfelt comment. With insight and understanding it may be possible to improve relationship issues. Thank you for dropping by. Ebonny


Au fait profile image

Au fait 2 years ago from North Texas

My late husband was passive-agressive. He hated confrontations and disagreement and would do anything to avoid them. God only knows why he chose to be a lawyer since disagreement is the reason lawyers exist. :)


Ebonny profile image

Ebonny 2 years ago from UK Author

Hi Au Fait - Many thanks for your comment. To be honest I dislike confrontations but have learned that in life they are inevitable from time to time, and so might as well learn how best to go about them. Hopefully by the end both parties will gain some understanding, even if there is no agreement. Thankfully, nowadays I don't fear confrontations nearly as much.


kathy 2 years ago

This issue has to be one of the most unspoken of conflicts in marriage. Im hearing these symptoms from more and more married women. Being married 23 years to a a first born PK who is now a senior pastor makes this struggle more complex. Thank you for this article....i feel emboldened to own my part and at least stop 'dancing' on my side. #tryingtostayinginthismarriage


Ebonny profile image

Ebonny 2 years ago from UK Author

Hello Kathy

Thank you for your feedback. I am glad to know this article has given some food for thought and wish you well in finding a way forward.

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