Define Passive Aggressive Behavior - Examples in Marriage and Relationships

Updated on March 7, 2018
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Ebonny writes to share her thoughts, observations and opinions in the hope they may be of interest, or give pause for thought, to others.


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?

See results

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.

Questions & Answers

    © 2014 Ebonny


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      • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


        5 weeks ago from UK

        Hello Marjan

        Thank you for your comment and kind feedback. I imagine many will identify with the frustration of getting total rejection/no response when you stay calm and make your point. In this situation perhaps the only consolation is the thought that if the other person is not deaf they will have heard what you have to say, whether they like it or not, and whether they respond or not. Rather than a stream of questions which will likely not be answered, I’d opt for making statements instead. In calmly making your point you are expressing yourself which is far better for your emotional health than bottling everything up and effectively silencing yourself. So well done you! Even if your partner is too stubborn or whatever to acknowledge or answer, they will know that their silence cannot silence you or take away your right to at least be heard.

        Where does it end when you do not initiate making up? A good question to which there seems to be no definitive or adequate answer unfortunately.

        Feeling that you have to be responsible for initiating making up most or all of the time is can be quite depressing to say the very least. All I would say is that whilst you are considering when/how/if you will initiate making up, be sure to be good to yourself – make a point of uplifting, entertaining and sustaining yourself in the interim. That way you’re less likely to be making up out of a sense of desperation and more from a place of forgiveness, (even if you don’t feel your partner deserves forgiveness).

        It might help if you are able to view initiating making up as you being the stronger, bigger, person. For some people, their faith can be a factor in helping them to forgive and initiate making up.

        If a partner insists on disengaging for weeks on end, that’s their choice. Over that length of time, their partner is bound to have times when they just feel like giving up on the relationship, so they also have a choice to make. Hopefully having weighed things up, they’ll be clearer about how best to proceed. Ultimately, we have to take responsibility for our own emotional state and our own happiness.

        Sincere best regards.


      • profile image


        6 weeks ago

        One of the best articles on this subject I have ever read. And I have read a lot of them, being at the other end of PA. Not so often anymore, since I learned how to behave when conflicts arose, thanks to Ebonny's articles on this on Hubpages.

        But it is still there and then I get the silent treatment. When I try to talk about what happened I get total rejection and it is like talking to a concrete wall. I stay calm and make my point.

        He is not totally silent anymore, but disengages from the relationship for weeks on end. He is not able to make up (even when he knows he started the drama, often for a very small or no reason but his own bad temper. I still sometimes get angry and then he does have a reason to be mad at me) or talk about it.

        I have to do the making up. It gets more difficult for me to do so, because I fear that that could give him a reason to continue this behaviour. But where does it end when I do not .... ?

        We are both near our pension, have a whole life behind us together and I will sit this out. Because we also have many nice times together and they outweigh the difficult ones. I hope that when we do not have to work anymore, it will be better. He is a different person when relaxed.

        Thank you Ebonny, for this excellent article!

        Sorry if my English is not correct, I am not a native speaker.

      • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


        7 months ago from UK

        Hi Phil

        Yes, I too have noted that they genuinely feel victimised with a tendency to being self righteous. Thank you for sharing your story and hopefully your counsellor is able to see your point of view as well as your wife's. Ebonny

      • profile image


        7 months ago

        I am amazed at how good passive aggressive people are at playing the poor victim . I think my wife was able to snow a counselor we saw and convince him that the real problem was that I had an “anger problem” and she was my poor innocent target . We had a multi -day argument that consisted of her giving me the silent treatment and sarcastic one or two word answered .. after like 3or 4 days I finally blew up and screamed something about being sick and tired of living like this .. she had been waiting with s hidden tape recorder and got the only time I was loud and aggressive in the whole thing .Dong you know did pksyrd this back for our marriage counselor to demonstrate what a bully I am . He never understood the context of what really occurred .

      • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


        21 months ago from UK

        Hi David

        Thank you for your feedback and for sharing your situation. It can help when a person on the receiving end of PA can change their own reaction to it, thereby to some degree lessening the devastation - easier said than done but worth the effort. Take care.

      • profile image

        David Herrera 

        21 months ago

        very educational and insightful, my gorgeous wife, soft spoken, kind and gentle, is the total package if not for the devastating effects of PA on me.

        after struggling for several years to discuss her ability to "control from the weak side" one day she casualy mentioned she thought she was passive aggressive and my world has never been the same.

      • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


        4 years ago from UK

        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.

      • profile image


        4 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 imageAUTHOR


        4 years ago from UK

        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.

      • Au fait profile image

        C E Clark 

        4 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 imageAUTHOR


        4 years ago from UK

        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

      • alfaprima profile image

        Neil Warner 

        4 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 imageAUTHOR


        4 years ago from UK

        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.

      • Au fait profile image

        C E Clark 

        4 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.


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