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Is Passive Aggression Destroying Your Marriage?

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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 you 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.

Further Reading

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

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