Is Passive Aggression Destroying Your Marriage?

Updated on February 1, 2018
Ebonny profile image

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

What Causes Passive Aggression?

By definition, passive-aggressive (PA) people seek to avoid direct conflict. They use verbal, non-verbal, non-physical, furtive opposition, resistance and withdrawal to get what they want or need. Unfortunately, this type of behaviour can eat away at, and ultimately destroy, a relationship.

It is said that passive aggression is learned in childhood as a defence mechanism when a person feels overwhelmed or helpless in the face of those in authority—for example, a dominant parent or teacher.

Their upbringing leaves them with a firmly held belief that showing their anger is unacceptable and thus begins a propensity to use PA behaviour. Anger is covertly expressed in ways that often hurt their nearest and dearest and ultimately, themselves, even though they may not realise it.

Looking back

There's no definitive test to apply at the outset but, looking back, were signs of passive aggressive personality disorder there before you committed to a long term relationship with your partner?

See results

We're All a Little PA

Deep within most of us, there lies a small degree of passive aggression. This tiny drop in the great scheme of life is not too problematic. However, an extremely passive-aggressive spouse can turn that tiny drop into an overflowing river in their husband or wife. The frustration of living with a routinely PA partner can drive a person to feel routine frustration, low self-esteem, confusion, upset, irritation, resentment, extreme stress and/or desperation. When such feelings prevail, the less PA partner may explode with anger. When this happens, the more PA spouse appears to be the injured party. Poor them for having to deal with an impatient, explosive partner!

The PA spouse, having brought about a furious outburst in their partner, then adds more resentment fuel to the fire. Thus further passive aggression ensues and the cycle continues to escalate.

When the worst is brought out in a less PA partner, it becomes a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg! Apportioning blame can become increasingly difficult. Thus, resentments multiply and sadly the relationship is slowly destroyed.

A Favourite Tool Used by PA People

How It Destroys Relationships

In these relationships, confusion and frustration abound because

  • wants and needs are often not made known to you, so better make sure you are a mind-reader;
  • unspoken rule changes happen out of the blue; and
  • passive-aggressive people often feel justified to renege on agreed courses of action because, unknowingly, you have not taken note of one of their requirements - a requirement which they never told you about in the first place!

Resentment is what primarily fuels a PA person, and they may or may not be conscious of their game-playing, perhaps genuinely believing that they are in the right. Moreover, when you try to put yourself in their shoes and acknowledge their feelings, they don’t seem to hear it. They often

  • prefer to wallow in their problems and negativity, rather than work to resolve matters and
  • are too busy thinking about how they are in the right (and how you are in the wrong) to be able to actually properly listen to you.

Self-Awareness Is Key

Increased self-awareness can lead to more open, honest, assertive conduct.

Self-Doubt Is Normal

Whether it is calculated or not, such behaviour is just plain crazy-making. You find yourself wondering why it is so difficult to get a straight answer from your partner.

You wonder if they are incapable of changing themselves, even if they wanted to (which unfortunately most don’t).

Again and again, you question your own sanity and wonder if you are the problem, as they would have you believe.

But because you do love your other half (who may be extremely pleasant and kind at times), you try hard to find workable solutions to the issues that come up. However, far too often it’s a case of one step forward, two steps back.

Should You Feel Compassion for Your Partner?

At some point, you may feel very sorry for your passive aggressive partner, especially if they are the type who also has numerous good points and can even be compassionate, helpful and loving at times. Of course, they don't all have this good side to their nature. If they are the type who is verbally and/or physically abusive or, quite simply, a nasty piece of work, then the decision of whether or not to stay with them is much more of a no-brainer.

When these men or women have a sweet side, the problem becomes how to separate the person from the PA traits they learned in childhood. You may well wonder if it is actually possible for them to stop such behaviour, even if they want to. Or perhaps you think, “If they cannot help the way that they are, is it right to abandon them?” Guilt and self-doubt are all too familiar to partners of PA people.

You may feel pity for your spouse because they really cannot seem to help themselves. Indeed, when they hurt you, they hurt their relationship and ultimately themselves. But they just cannot see what is unacceptable about what they are doing. If they fear you may leave them, they may even pretend that they do know they are in the wrong and why, and promise that they will change, because deep down they do not want to lose you or be alone. At the time, they may even mean what they are saying but afterward, you'll see they just cannot actually do what is necessary to save the relationship.


Becoming skilled at retaliatory passive aggressive behaviour is not something you want to become “good at." It could become a habit and unconsciously seep into your interactions with others, potentially spoiling all your relationships.

Tit for Tat

In the long run, retaliatory PA behaviour only serves to advance the destruction of a marriage. Most everyone is capable of such aggression to some degree. Moreover, if you have spent a lot of time around an incredibly PA person it is a possibility that some of their traits may have rubbed off on you or they may have heightened the minor PA traits you had to begin with. Thus it is possible your partner has helped bring out the worst in you. It is not unusual for some tit for tat to develop. So, without beating yourself up too much, just consider your part in the dance. Think about what your role may have been in enabling the dance to continue to thrive and be conscious of reducing such conduct, replacing it with constructive, honest assertiveness.

To increase your self awareness, you may wish to consider 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive Aggressiveness by Andrea Brandt. Having taken a look inside the book and browsing the customer reviews for the above publication, the writer of this article decided the unabridged audio-book version (which can be "consumed" solo and/or as a couple) could well be helpful. She subsequently concluded that the best way to approach her partner about listening to the audio was to explain to him that no relationship is perfect, and sometimes, somehow, they were not bringing out the best in one another. To fix this, they could listen together to try and address certain issues before things became irretrievable/before either of them reached a breaking point. This little book is indeed a very worthwhile resource.

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

If you are at the start of a relationship with someone who displays these traits, some would advocate checking out of the relationship before you are in too deep. Others would say if you take steps to challenge their behaviour in the early stages of the relationship you are much more likely to be able to alter the dynamic, at least to a level that is bearable and which doesn't overshadow everything else. After all, nobody is perfect so if you assess that your partner is “good enough,” then you might want to stay. Every marriage and relationship is different, and so it's up to you to finally decide whether you can endure living with such a person.

Once more, they are not necessarily all mean spirited, wicked people. Some of them may even make a great effort to try to do things differently as much as they can for a time, but the fact remains that they are who they are and there is no magic pill which will guarantee they can squash their PA traits forever. Again, most PAs will be averse to the notion of counselling. They do not think they are in need of fixing. They are convinced they have done nothing wrong. Hence you cannot make them change their ways. In some cases, if they can finally recognise and accept that by being more honest and direct life will be better, they might decide to try to change themselves. There's no guarantee they will succeed and, again, you cannot make the decision for them.

Perhaps, in the end, the question for the partner of a PA spouse is do the good times significantly or sufficiently outweigh the bad and are you prepared to put up with this dynamic for the rest of your life? You will need to think about the complete picture —things like trust, parenthood, emotional and financial support, intimacy and, last but not least, love. Or do you simply crave harmony and to break away from this destructive cycle and potential killer of relationships? Doesn't everyone deserve a chance at happiness?

Ultimately you may simply need to save yourself and restore your equilibrium and peace of mind. Have you tried all you can, year in year out, to make the relationship work only to have things go right back to square one after some temporary glimmer of improvement? Have tried counselling and all the self-help books out there to no avail? Are you totally exhausted and tired of all the drama?

Only you will know if it is time to save yourself and move on rather than let passive aggression destroy both the relationship, and you.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Ebonny

Share your views on Passive Aggression in Relationships

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    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      21 months ago from UK

      Hi Mrs RC - my apologies for the delay in responding.

      Thank you for your feedback and for sharing your situation. How frustrating that he just slipped back into old habits once the counselling stopped, plus isolating himself from both you and your son. As you know only too well, there are no easy answers to his emotional and physical detachment but I'm thinking individual counselling may well help you whether you ultimately stay or go. Sincere best wishes for the future. Ebonny

    • profile image


      22 months ago

      So glad I came across this article, it has helped take some of my anger and frustration away from a 10 yr marriage with my husband, who I now know is a PA. We have been through counseling together for most of last year, 2-4 times a month. It was a solution focused therapy that seemed to help us communicate our needs and wants clearer, our counselor thought we had all the tools needed to continue on our own (She has limited caseloads and was turning down couples far worse than us) so we stopped 4 months ago. Slowly the old habits crept back, stopped kissing before/after work, touching, communicating, responding. We have a 10 yr old boy, as soon as I come home from work in the evening, he retreats into bedroom to watch YouTube videos on his phone. I spend the rest of the evening with our son, sometimes helping him with homework, cooking dinner, feeding 2 dogs & 2 cats, washing dishes (No we don't have a dishwasher), doing laundry and getting our son ready for bed. My husband makes a quick appearance once dinner is done, usually by 9pm because I don't get home from work till 7:30pm. He will fill his plate, go back to bedroom, eat in bed and fall asleep by the time I go in there. Maybe 5 minutes of communication. I am left feeling lonlier every day this goes on. I use to want sex 2-3 times a week, because it was my only time to feel close to him, but it was always on his terms, even getting mad at me if I initiated. His sex is once every 2 weeks, so I patiently waited until he would initiate, even though its always over in less than 2 minutes, I thought beggars can't be choosers and thought maybe it would get better next time around. Wrong. I try to get him to talk, but I don't share political interests and conspiracy theories like he does so it's always very superficial and quick. I'm getting to the point where I don't even want the every 2 week sex because I feel so emotionally detached and sex is more to me than a physical act anymore. I presume this will just make matters worse and I'll get blamed as usual. I didn't want a divorce, I don't want to make our son feel unstable and financially struggle (for both of us). He works full time in a blue collar job, hates it but won't look for anything better. I work part time and am a professional in a small office. I make twice the amount as he does, but he works more hours and carries good insurance so divorcing would hurt not just our son, but both of us financially. I was thinking of getting individual counseling for myself. I feel like I'm co-dependent on a passive aggressive and although we talked about this before and our marriage counselor suggested he go see an addiction specialist for a very bad past substance abuse (10-20 yrs) issue, he relunctly went one time and said he probably won't continue because it doesn't "apply" to him. I can't waste my time worrying about him, I need to work on myself.

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      22 months ago from UK

      Hi Gary - So sorry to hear of all the difficulties you have been facing in the breakdown of your marriage. It's very hard when we lose "the one" whatever the circumstances but you seem to be turning a corner and accept my best wishes to you in finding peace of mind and happiness for the future. I also wish the same for your wife, not forgetting your son. Ebonny

    • profile image


      22 months ago

      Sheesh... I am with you all. I was a Nationally Board Certified Therapist in '92, specializing in at-risk teens. I worked w/ some of the finest professionals in the State, then moved into a teaching position. My marriage of 7 years is coming to an end. Despite my long history w/ oppositional teens, autism, and everything in between, I've been no match for my wife's PA and her enabling therapist. They have accused me of being a narcissistic, passive aggressive person, and the slow build up has made me sick in several ways. Thank goodness for a strong set of friends (in mental health and elsewhere) and support from family. "8 Keys to Eliminating Passive Aggressiveness" was a godsend. I love her dearly and recognize that the source of her PA is from PTSD (which WAS diagnosed) from an abusive mom, who had PTSD from her abusive childhood, etc. My wife had a suicide attempt as a teen and has other diagnoses (emotional and physical), but somehow I got blamed, even though she refused to get up w/ our child, slept as much as possible, got stoned every day, worked 1/2 half time while I worked over time and still got our son ready for the day and did 90% of all the cooking... on and on. It made me physically ill. On top of her PTSD, she had post partum depression, and my testosterone flagged (not unusual), but the combination of stressors and her blaming me left me unable to make love to her. That compounded her feelings (obviously), but I never stopped taking care of her (and holding her) through migraines, fibromyalgia, and anxiety. It was the incompetent, unprofesisonal, and unethical therapist we saw (I saw--paid for--7 different therapists to get help) who blamed me, thereby turning me into an adversary instead of the loving husband who was doing his best to support his wife through a long list of childhood and current stressors. Now she's moved out (30 miles away), and is asking for a divorce after 7 mo. of separation. She admits that denial killed her mother and her father (one ignored cancer, the other his heart disease), but can't see it in the mirror. She is living in an apt. w/ our 4 yr. old boy (60/40 time), and her prospects for ever healing, getting a house on her own, and opening the business she dreamed of are dim. Her PA gets worse, as she shuts me down and refuses counseling. I have never called her a name or been outwardly/purposefully mean to her, but I did tell her in therapy twice that we "were not compatible... I'm going to have a nervous breakdown." I'm no match for her hostility. I've felt tremendous anxiety, depression, fear for our son and fear and sadness for her current pain, past pain, and awful anguish that is heading her way, but I'm at the point where my lawyer will need to address her unfair demands re. transport of our son, etc. I was a very happy guy (horses, music, dancing), and her illness has crushed me. I've thrown myself into martial arts and stick to my diet and will be ready to date soon, but I predict I'll be grieving for my wife--the love of my life--for the rest of our days. thanks for the space to unload!!!

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      23 months ago from UK

      Hi Victoria

      Thank you for sharing your story. Please don't be too harsh on yourself. Instead I hope you'll use that energy to uplift yourself and plan for a great future. Although it can be a scary prospect, being single is not the end of the world and I will you well. Regards, Ebonny

    • profile image


      23 months ago

      Passive Aggressive describes my husband to a "T" . I believe he's been this way since childhood, I know he had issues with his Authoritarian Father, although now that his father is deceased, he claims to know of no problems.. His behavior has destroyed our 28 year marriage and he has become a monster to me. I questioned myself for years thinking I was the problem, as he told friends, and family how controlling I was, and I didn't let him make decisions. My husband has blamed me, punished me, belittled me and bullied me for years. I feel so stupid for trying to make it work for all these years. We have had separate rooms for the past 7 years, no kindness or empathy, nothing, and he still wouldn't leave or ask for a divorce.

      At almost 61, I will be single but I am looking forward to having peace in my life. I'll stick with my animals from now on.

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from UK

      Hi Anonymous Dad

      Please accept my apologies for the delay in replying. I am so sorry to learn of the situation you are faced with, particularly with regard to your son. I admire you for keeping up your efforts to communicate with him and one day I'm sure he will appreciate them too and hopefully come around. As painful as rejection is, don't give up. He's young and later on he will be in a better position to review things more objectively and he will remember how you tried so hard to reach out to him.

      Dealing with passive aggression in marriage is very hard and one has to be careful not to become passive aggressive oneself. It's a hard decision and you had the guts to leave rather than descend into the spiral and I wish you well for the future. Thanks for sharing. Best regards - Ebonny

    • profile image

      Anonymous Dad 

      2 years ago

      I feel as I am in a very similar situation to Witblitz1. I have been married to my wife for 16 1/2 years and have a 15 year old son. I didn't realize much of what was wrong until about a year ago. I was self medicating with pot to deal with the unhappiness in my life and finally decided to give it up. My head cleared, and I began to discuss my problems with friends and realized I wasn't the one in wrong all the time as my wife had led me to believe. I got the silent treatment far too often. When I asked what was wrong got "nothing" then after days of sulking and me begging her, she would finally tell me what I had "done wrong." She expected me to read her mind and know what she wanted. She would often call me names, weak, disappointment, etc. She would show me love and affection, then turn around and be cold. Far more often than not she rebuked my attempts at sexual intimacy always saying "it's not you." She was either too tired, or too full from dinner, or too stressed, or too something. When I finally left her a little over a month ago, she has turned our son against me even though she claims not to speak to him about me. He won't speak to me. She speaks kindly to me one day then the next is spiteful. She has lied to me to hurt me. She lashes out when when she's not just outright cold. I was enabling her for too long and let her nearly destroy my sense of self. I am not in the process of beginning a divorce. It is very difficult in trying to reconnect with my son. Heartbreaking. She claims he is a mama's boy with no small amount of pride. I could deal with the issues with her quite easily if it were not for my son. I love him and miss him and try to reach out multiple times a day. I won't give up, but it's hard. However, I still know that I did the right thing, especially when reading articles like this.

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from UK

      Hello witblitz1

      Thank you for sharing your experiences, the steps you have taken to try to change things, your reflections and your decision to move on. Yes, indeed it is impossible to make anyone change their behaviour.

      Whilst I am sorry to know what a difficult time you have endured for all these years, I am heartened to note that you are thinking carefully about the emotional welfare of your children as you embark on the next phase of your lives. I sincerely wish you all the best.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I have been married to a passive aggressive woman for 12 years. Her behavior started literally from the day after we were married. All affection stopped and she rapidly became less and less interested in any form of intimacy, never connected with me on an emotional level, would never speak to me about anything, and would manage to screw up even the most menial tasks, despite having an incomplete PHD, and gone to college on a scholarship. At first I could simply not understand her behavior, and whenever I confronted her on it she would shift the blame to me with by saying "you want me to be perfect" or "everything is always my fault" which drove me insane as I don't think its unreasonable for a husband to want his wife to hug him, kiss him, touch him and want to have sex with him, much less talk to him. No matter how many times I tried to get her to open up I was always met with silence, sulking, lack of affection of any kind, eye rolling, she wouldn't even make eye contact with me, and displayed total apathy. I couldn't understand her lack of interest in dealing with her behavior, and was met with more excuses and denial, so my response was anger and frustration. We have 2 preteen kids, and she barely shows them any affection either, this was most heartbreaking especially when my daughter would ask me why mommy doesn't ever play with her.

      As time went on and her inexplicable behavior persisted, I went from being a happy friendly guy always easy to laugh, to always feeling stressed and being angry. At one point a few years ago I was at my wits end, because I had no answers for her bizzare behavior and emotional detatchment from me and the kids, I didn't understand what the problem was and my wife refused to speak to me about anything in any detail. When I would tell her how I was feeling she would say "I don't know what you want me to say" or "that's not true" so I started speaking about it to a psychologist friend of mine. My friend said to me "your wife sounds like an extreme passive aggressive" at which point I informed her that I didn't know what that was. She recommended a good book to me called "The angry smile". I also began to google passive aggressive behavior and it was like the heavens opened up and imparted the wisdom of the gods on me. The more I read these sites the more it seemed like they were describing my wife to a tee. from the withholding of intimacy, to the eye-rolling, deliberate incompetence, sulking, ignoring, indifference, and lack of communication. It was as if they knew her personally. I even went so far as to print up several pages and give them to her to read. She read them and had no comment, which was dumbfounding. When I asked her what she thought, her response was "I don't think I am passive aggressive." Its been 4 years since that day and her PA behavior has gotten worse. I have tried to reach her every way I could, to no avail. It seemed the more I tried to reach her the more distant and disinterested she became. Finally, 3 nights ago I tried reaching out to her for the final time. We were in our bed, and I had once again been rejected for sex and then I just began to tell her how unhappy I was, that I was angry all the time over her lack of communication, empathy, affection, and everything else. I went on about how stressed I have been and how massively unhappy I was and that I could no longer live like this. Through all of this I got no response, so I look over and she was asleep. This was that final straw. This is what did it for me. Right then and there it finally hit me that her being passive aggressive and closed up was more important than my feelings and happiness and there was nothing I could ever do, she would never change, I now knew that it was time for me to leave.

      For the 14 years we have been together, I have tried to give her everything she has ever wanted or needed. I gave her all the love I could, affection, and took care of her when she needed it, knowing that she came from a poor childhood, with a mother who was not very much of a mother and a father who drunk, only to get nothing but apathy in return. I have been reluctant to deal with leaving before because we have 2 young children, but I just cant do it anymore. I know now that she will never ever change, and because of that if I have to preserve my sanity and health, I have to be the one to change because she cant or wont, or she will destroy me. And so I have decided to move out, and get a divorce. This tears me apart as my father abandoned me as a child and I don't want my children to think I am doing the same to them. They are my world. But I know deep in my heart that staying with this toxic person will be not only bad for me but for them as well, and so I have begun to look for an apartment, I have to do this, because she cannot and will not deal with her own PA disorder and I am left with no other option.

      The advice I offer to others in toxic relationships with PAs: Get out, leave, before they destroy you, before its too late. In almost every case I have read the passive aggressive will never change because they will never admit to being a PA and thus never deal with their PA behavior. Believe that you deserve better, its time to think of yourself for a change.

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from UK

      Hello Sandie

      Many thanks to you for sharing your situation and yes it's certainly time you have release from the strain of ongoing PA and silent treatment. I hope you don't “beat yourself up” for not leaving when you were younger as we all tend to do what we believe is the right thing at the time. Now you seem to have a growing understanding of why you tolerated the negative behaviour and no doubt this will help you as you contemplate your future - and indeed sharing your experience will be of interest and value to others.

      No one can predict if or when someone will reach the point where they can look to the future and go forward with determination and positivity despite feeling some trepidation at the thought of change or the unknown. I will say however that once it happens it’s liberating and strengthening to take ownership of our own emotional well being rather than tip toe around on eggshells. I wish you the best for the future.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      I have been living with my "loving" PA for 50 years, married, 3 kids, 7 grandkids. I'm considering a separation at this time. It is getting worse and he is the kind, loving, give me any material thing I could want, take me any where I want to go PA. But, the other side of his personality is destroying our relationship. He is up to 30 days of punishment by not speaking to me, answering the phone, etc. I love him and just realized why I let this behavior continue all these years. My Mother also was a PA, what a wake-up call that was. My faith in God also kept me working to keep my marriage together. A broken home was not an option for me in the 60's and 70's or 80's. I was a stay at home Mom and he has always worked hard to take care of us. But now, I'm 71 and I need some peace in my life. The stress is overwhelming. My children are sick of the cycle of happy, angry, happy, angry and so am I. You never know what will set him off. Young people, pay attention, leave this kind of relationship.

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from UK

      Hi Debbie

      Yes, when a relationship is constantly taking a toll on your sanity and peace of mind it's time to save yourself. Sounds like you've endured a terrible time and I thank you for sharing your story. Best wishes for the future - Ebonny

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I have recently ended a 7 year relationship with someone who displayed most of these traits. It was not an easy or quick decision but i was starting to fear for my sanity, i did not realise that he was passive aggressive i knew for a long time something was wrong and it nearly drove me mad, he blamed me for everything provoked me into arguments and then told me i enjoyed arguing and would not speak to me for days. I just could not work out what was wrong i tried my very best and thought with patience and love i could fix him !! how i wish i had more insight i allowed him to make me angry and upset and then lost my temper and gave him what he wanted i just did not realise i was doing it and then he would say i needed councelling and i needed help and a few times i actually wandered if it was true, he made me question myself and my sanity and it took me to leave to see how bad things were and that deep down he doesn't take my feelings into consideration at all it's all about him and what i've done to him - i never loved him and i used him i'm selfish and only care about myself - well i did love him and i tried my best but now i am going to be selfish and i am going to look out for myself without him !!

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Hello toni - I bet you're relieved to be out of that situation. What a learning experience but on a positive note you now know what you don't need in future relationships. Thank you for sharing.

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      Hi psychicdog - yes ,knowing what's happening can help stop the insanity! Many thanks for dropping by.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Oh boy its awful cos it usually comes with other negative traits around abuse maybe sociopath or narccistic behavioral disorder! Silent treatment mind games crazy making smear campaignt ect.. iv jst come out a 4 year relationship wi sum1 like that m it almost ended me

    • profile image 

      5 years ago

      Thanks ebonny- I love reading stuff like this where all the bs is being flushed out and shown up for what it is - it just amazes the self-denial lengths people can fo to!

    • Ebonny profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from UK

      MsDora - Yes, it can indeed be a challenge! Many thanks for reading and for your comment.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      5 years ago from The Caribbean

      The challenge is as you said: how to separate the person from the PA traits. The struggle is ongoing and articles like this one cannot be too many, in helping us deal with the problem. Thank you for your helpful suggestions.


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