Imagine a ball game in which the primary strategy is to toss a ball to your opponent simply so you can avoid dealing with it. But once you toss it, you need to pretend you never did. “I never tossed that ball. Don’t know where that ball came from. I think it’s your ball.”
Shoot me now, am I right? What kind of game is that? It’s not really a game as much as an exercise in frustration. It’s the ballgame version of passive-aggression. It is crazy-making, burdensome, and a sure-fire relationship killer.
At its core, passive-aggressive behavior is anger and the fear of expressing it. Usually the behavior is learned in childhood if displaying—or even so much as feeling—anger was perceived as unacceptable.
The resulting disconnect that comes when we suppress emotions, whether it’s anger, joy, sorrow, interferes with our:
• Emotional growth—expressing our emotions in appropriate, healthy ways.
• Psychological growth—the ability to acknowledge, understand, and process emotions.
• Spiritual growth—our awareness of and connection to our higher self.
The result is that physically—meaning in the actions we take or don’t take—hose issues manifest as passive-aggressive behavior.
Here is a short list of some of the ways it can manifest between two people:
Rather than dealing with or expressing thoughts and emotions (like anger) you go silent. You are, in point of fact, not “doing anything.” You could even say, “But what did I do?” and mean it. But remember—silence is a slammed door in a relationship.
Procrastination or excuses.
Paul noticed that every time he asked his wife to help him with a project she was either unavailable or unavailable “at the moment.” Eventually, Paul did most of these projects on his own, feeling resentful and deeply unsupported. What was unspoken between them that she “communicated” her feelings in in this way?
We all run late sometimes, but when your partner is literally always late… for meetings with you (if no one else)… this is a form of aggression that has gone underground.
And we’re not talking amusingly sassy, tongue-in-cheek quips but sarcasm that, typically within relationships, is hostility disguised as humor. If your partner says, “Don’t interrupt me. I’m busy living happily ever after,” you may laugh… but you are being told any number of things, none of which is that he or she is happy in the relationship at that moment.
No matter what Dale did or said, his girlfriend turned it into a bummer. If he was happy and doing well, she’d find a reason for that to be bad news. “I got a new client” would be met with “He’s probably a loser.” Or “I’ll pick up steak on the way home” didn’t get a “Thanks, hon” but a “Can we afford that?” Dale eventually grew so demoralized by this form of passive-aggressiveness that he rarely opened his mouth.
Words don’t line up with actions.
If “I love you” is not matched by loving, caring actions, the cognitive disconnect is huge. An actively aggressive person will also behave one way only to cover it up with empty words.
A passive-aggressive partner will use all the techniques above to avoid actual confrontation and honesty, which are seen as highly risky for this person. Fear is at the root of this avoidance of confrontation—so that, ultimately, even honest communication of any kind is avoided.
The ultimate non-active form of cruelty. All you have to do is…nothing. Like the silent treatment, the withholding of affection creates an echo-chamber of loneliness.
So how do you cope with passive-aggressiveness?
We are focusing on romantic partners, but this list works if it is a family member, colleague, friend….
• Recognize the behavior.
• Address it… calmly. Since this person is probably terrified of confrontation, be careful not to come across as accusatory or angry. Use “I” statements when you talk. E.g. “I feel that this request is making you angry.” Do not expect agreement, however. Many people who use passive aggressive behavior as a way to “get their way” or “feel justified by making you angry” will not admit it. Since much of passive-aggressive behavior is “non-doing” they may shrug and say, “What did I do?” But addressing the issue is totally worthwhile—in fact vital—because just acknowledging it is enough to start to diffuse their behavior.
• Maintain personal boundaries. Do this by letting them know the consequences of their actions. E.g. “If you are going to be late I am going ahead without you.”
• Understand. Namely: that this person experiences a myriad of unmet needs and yet has no idea how to ask for what he/she wants, or is simply scared to ask. Emotions are either denied altogether or bottled up. The result is that he or she can’t express them, feels like a victim, has very blurred boundaries, and as a result has mastered passive aggressive behavior in order to feel a semblance of control and success in personal and professional relationships. That is what you are working with. Understanding is key.
While being in a relationship with a passive aggressive person can be a challenge, feel like a roller coaster ride, and push any number of buttons—there are ways to work toward a more satisfying relationship. If your passive-aggressive loved one is not willing to work on personal growth and learning more successful coping strategies, you always have the option to disengage and/or end the relationship.
Adapted from an article on BeFreeToLove.com
Photo: Getty Images