What is passive Aggressive Behaviour?
When you ask your partner "What’s Wrong?" and he or she replies "Nothing . . .", and you feel instinctively they are hiding something or withholding emotions you may be facing passive-aggressive behaviour. If this kind of behaviour is part of a repetitive pattern, you may be facing difficult communication problems that you find hard to confront head on. Passive-aggressive partners may be in denial or unwilling to express themselves. They may give you the silent treatment for days. Withdraw into themselves and withhold emotional contact with you. This may be followed by small acts of sabotage such as forgetting important events, not carrying out their responsibilities, or turning up late to a date.
They may claim there is nothing wrong, but they are probably in a state of denial and you may assume they feel anything but wrong. Often the deafening silence means there is a deep state of anger, disappointment or frustration that is not being acknowledged openly. You may find after a fairly minor conflict, perhaps only a few minutes or days later, that hurtful remarks are fired off in your direction, seemingly out of the blue. This is called passive-aggressive behaviour because the person is often unable to communicate intense feelings openly and feels frustrated, unable to face-up to conflict until it is too late. It may lead to sudden outbursts in a flurry of unexpected anger or complete withdrawal. For the partner who is the target of passive-aggressive behaviour, it is undoubtedly frustrating to deal with, but you’ll find that establishing boundaries early on, communicating effectively or time spent defusing the situation will go a long way in improving the quality of your relationship.
However, rather than characterise persons as 'passive aggressive' it is better to observe patterns of passive-aggressive communication and respond to them when it happens. It is easy to attach labels to others and demonise or alienate them by stereotyping their behaviours as passive-aggressive. This type of labelling is not helpful in relationships as those people who get labelled may lose self-esteem and feel even more alienated. Rather, it is helpful to understand that most of us use passive aggressive communication styles at some point in our lives. In fact it is often born of a fear of conflict. People who may use this communicating style are often unaware of their impact on others and easily create patterns of avoidance or withdrawal. This cannot excuse their behaviour, but explains why they seem so detached from their emotions and others.
Understanding Passive-Aggressive Behaviour
Passive-aggressive behaviour is the display of avoidance behaviours, angry denial and poor communication skills. A person feels frustration but is unable to express their emotions clearly and openly, perhaps out of fear of conflict or rejection. This means their expression comes out incoherent, muddled or fragmented and difficult to follow. Ironically there may be a strong desire to become closer to their partner by discussing what bothers them, but they may not trust themselves to articulate their feelings in a meaningful way. Instead their behaviour tends to drive them away, adding further layers of frustration.
Passive-aggressive behaviour in a relationship rarely appears overnight. It is nearly always a pattern or cycle of behaviour that the other partner feels is impossible to confront, because the person who is communicating this way so often ‘plays victim’. And this causes feelings of guilt. Usually this behaviour has been ingrained in a person’s personality as an ‘emotional coping mechanism’ since childhood. For instance, someone may grow up in a household where the expression of negative emotions was discouraged – e.g. frustration may have been routinely repressed until reaching a critical point. Once it becomes too uncomfortable to stifle these negative emotions, rather than to express them, they come out suddenly and with unexpected force, usually as a set of spiteful verbal attacks, full of blame and recrimination then periods of moodiness.
Another cause of passive-aggressive ‘coping mechanisms’ is spending a lot of time around other passive-aggressive people and accepting it as the norm. Passive-aggressive behaviour can also be seen in someone who has a dependent personality, plays on learned helplessness or looks at the future with pessimism. They may not be connected to their feelings, seemingly 'cold' or detached. People who are not good at expressing their feelings can therefore get taken advantage of; allowing others to violate their rights and boundaries as a form of self-sacrifice. Expressing thoughts and feelings in an apologetic and self-effacing way. Showing a subtle lack of respect for other people’s ability to take disappointment. Finds it difficult to shoulder responsibility or handle their own problems.
- continued defensiveness or feeling criticised even when it hasn’t been voiced
- apologises inappropriately in a soft unsteady voice
- long rambling sentences and beating-around‐the‐bush and is often hesitant or filled with long meaningful pauses
- using phrases such as “Do you mind. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble…” or infills such as “maybe”, “er”, “um”, “sort of”
- voice becomes dull and monotonous, or tone can be whining and drop away into silence
- frequently justifies what they are saying, “I know it’s not my place but…” and often apologies e.g. “Sorry, but would you mind if I…”
- constant stoicism or self‐dismissal e.g. “It’s not really that important” or “It doesn’t matter”
- using self put‐downs, e.g., “I can’t help it, I’m useless” or “You know what I’m like...”
- averting gaze or looking down at the floor
- posture can be slouched with shoulders hunched looking defeated
- pacing up-and-down or wringing hands
- inappropriate laughter when expressing anger
- crossing arms or folding legs for protection
- raising eyebrows in anticipation of a threat
- jaw grinding or lip biting
- “I’m useless...I’m unlovable...I’m a burden on others”
- “My feelings, needs and thoughts are less important than yours”
- “People will think badly of me...If I say no then I might upset someone”
What is the payoff?
- Praised for being selfless and putting others first
- Rarely blamed if things go wrong
- Others will do things for me
- Avoiding, postponing or hiding from conflict - becoming withdrawn and inexpressive
What is the cost:
- Prone to a build-up of stress and anger that can explode without warning
- Making subtly unreasonable demands of you
- Can get stuck in co-dependent relationships and find it hard to change
- diminishing positive feelings
- Loss of self esteem
Whatever the underlying cause, the good news is that passive-aggressive behaviour is not entirely intentional, but it does make people difficult to work with during interpersonal communication. In a healthy relationship both partners should feel as though they can share their innermost thoughts and feelings, including fears and frustrations, and that those concerns will be taken seriously by the other, not dismissed or belittled. Working on correcting these tendencies will make for an emotionally stable & healthy relationship. Here are some tips to defusing passive-aggressive behaviours:
Reduce your Defensiveness – it is not about you, even if you feel you are being blamed
This is easier said than done, especially when you face denial, resistance and avoidance. But the less you react with anger and the more you behave with empathy or understanding, the more likely that a passive-aggressive person will trust you and open up. Often it is an underlying fear of being rejected, humiliated or undermined that prevents a person from communicating in an open and honest way. Although that person may not have good reason to distrust you, they may have a history of being victimised or being treated with scorn. But in the frustration they create by not communicating or expressing their feelings, you easily become frustrated and angry. Give voice to this feeling, but reassure the passive-aggressive communicator that you will not attack them – that you want to listen and understand their anxieties. Actively listen to them and respond with empathy and non-judgemental remarks which acknowledge the validity of their feelings without taking the blame – e.g. it’s understandable you may feel that way given your history, but I have no intention of repeating your past. We can tackle these issues better together.’ Ask yourself this – are you better off winning the argument through the power of reason, or are you better off with a solution you can both agree to. If you are fundamentally opposed and someone needs to win, there has to be a loser. This is never the basis for a mutually respectful relationship. Trust is. Even where there is fundamental difference of opinion. You can collaborate where your differences are complementary; not where they are polarised and opposed.
The Silent Treatment
What your partner says…there is nothing wrong, despondently with a sad look on his or her face, shoulders down and looking at the floor. What your partner means…I’m upset or angry about something but I’m afraid to express myself because I might be rejected or abandoned. I would really like you to inquire patiently about what’s wrong and wait for me to find the words to express myself. Please pay attention to what I have to say because it’s important to me. And do not dismiss my feelings. I feel more comfortable with you approaching me gently and with compassion, so in nonverbal ways I’ll ask you to approach me with undivided attention and repeat this multiple times until I am absolutely sure I can trust you to listen without prejudice. Do not try to criticise of fix me, but listen and reflect back what I am saying. Allow me to use the silence to reflect rather than probe me into action. What to Do?…The first few times you recognize this behaviour, play by the rules she needs in the beginning to open up. It may seem like a hassle, especially if it happens a lot, but realize that this woman that you love and care for is uncomfortable and is asking for your help, so devote your undivided attention to her for a few minutes—in time you will not be disappointed. Since her behaviour most likely stems from having a hard time dealing with negative emotions she feels toward someone she loves, she’ll require constant reassurance while she develops the good habit of expressing her frustrations and fears comfortably with you. But don’t worry—it won’t be forever. Over time, she’ll feel free to express herself and will be able to very openly and maturely start discussions about things that bother her.
Emotional Guilt Trips – ‘I am the victim’
What your partner says…mean and nasty one-liners full of blame and accusations. They appear anxious and angry, despite turning their back and being half-engaged in another task, such as watching the TV. He or she may be unable to make eye contact with you while delivering these verbal attacks or appear emotionally detached. Or they may go for a direct, unexpected attack, followed by tears & recriminations that make you feel guilty. What your partner means…I’m really frustrated by something that you’re doing and probably have been for some time but haven’t said anything yet. I feel victimised and persecuted, but I’m afraid to say what it is. I’m afraid of ‘rocking the boat’ until my anger and frustration becomes unbearable, so now my emotions are so intense I feel I could burst. And because I have forgotten how this started, or not voiced it earlier I want to blame you, by acting the victim. I will deny I'm an angry person & prove this by remaining silent & emotional withholding. But actually I'm seething with anger inside.
What to Do?…even though it’s really difficult to remain calm when the person you love is voicing a list of accusations and blame, try not to overreact. Hear them out with undivided attention and reassure them you still love them and that you take any concern seriously but you may not agree with it, or may be able to offer a different perspective. Encourage them to remain calm but respectfully not in a patronising way. Let them express what their concerns are to you. Resist the urge to be defensive, even if it is warranted and also refrain from asking the question that may ask them to justify what they said e.g. "But why don’t you ever tell me until it’s too late?" It’s precisely because the person has a hard time expressing negative emotions (and may have been humiliated in the past), that you need to find a place be compassionate and in time they could be bringing concerns to your attention a lot sooner. If your partner has been bottling frustrations for a while the outburst of them can seem overwhelming for both of you. You may walk away from things and then sweep it under the carpet till the next time. So try to stand back from the situation and take an overview. Evaluate what is going on from different perspectives – e.g. your account, their account, an observer’s account and a factual account. This will help you to see there is no absolute truth, but only versions of it. Do not sweep feelings under the carpet either.
There is a difference between hot, warm and cold feelings. If you feel the argument is about to become heated and overwhelming, indicate this to your partner and walk away for a few moments to take ‘time-out’. During this period reflect and clarify your thought in a way that can help both of your, not help you to win your argument or force your partner to justify themselves. Once feeling are no longer hot, but are still warm enough for you to connect with them, return for an open and non-defensive discussion with your partner. Do not wait until feelings become cold and are ignored. Instead of turning an argument into more hurt (which will only reinforce your partners notions that they should keep their negative emotions to themselves), use it as an opportunity to help your partner feel and acknowledge that your relationship is a safe place to express anything. The safer they feels the less passive-aggressive they will be. There still may be disagreements, but they will be able to be handled with much more maturity and less hurtful ways. REMEMBER above all – in a defensive and angry conflict where one person seeks to win the argument, it can only fuel more passive-aggressive behaviour. That’s precisely why it’s been learned in the first place - to protect them from attack. For these reasons it can be useful for couples in relationships to attend Couples Counselling In Isleworth (at Counselling Twicken).