Confronting difficult emotions like anger, sadness, and disappointment can be painful. It’s even harder to address those emotions in our relationships with others.
Passive aggression allows people to subtly vocalize their negative emotions without directly addressing the source of the discomfort. While passive-aggressive behavior can feel good and even righteous, it slowly erodes relationships, eliminating any chance of fixing the underlying problem.
Why Am I Passive Aggressive?
Passive aggression allows people to give voice to uncomfortable emotions without directly tackling the source of the problem. People may behave passive-aggressively for many reasons, including:
- Fear of authority. An employee, child, or other person in a subordinate role may fear that directly addressing their concerns will result in punishment.
- Fear of loss. Some people worry that telling a person how they feel will cause that person to reject them. For example, a husband may not want to tell his partner about his jealousy, fearing their judgment or rejection.
- Poor communication. Sometimes people use passive aggression because previous attempts at direct communication have not gone well. Passive aggression may be an attempt to prevent conflict from spiraling out of control in a troubled relationship.
- Modeling. Not all passive-aggressive communication is deliberate. People who grew up with passive-aggressive parents may think this way of communicating is effective and normal.
- Shame. Some people feel ashamed of their emotions, especially anger. Passive aggression allows them to voice those feelings without admitting to them.
“Passive aggression is an obstacle standing in the way of emotional intimacy.”
“Passive aggression is a tactic people use to show their angry feelings in a seemingly non-combative, consequence-free way,” says Andrea Brandt, PhD, MFT, a therapist in Santa Monica, California. “When you have a deep fear of conflict, passive aggression is a way to cope with your anger while avoiding a fight. Instead of telling your partner they’ve upset you or aren’t meeting your needs, you give them the cold shoulder. But, when you don’t ask for what you need, the odds of getting your needs met are greatly reduced. Passive aggression is an obstacle standing in the way of emotional intimacy.”
Passive-Aggressive Test: Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
You may be at risk of engaging in passive-aggressive behavior if you feel unable to share your emotions. Some risk factors for passive aggression include:
- Feeling ashamed of or conflicted about your emotions.
- Fearing others will not care about your emotions.
- Fearing conflict in a relationship.
- Being in a subordinate position to another person with whom you have conflict.
- Not wanting to lose another person’s approval.
- A history of intense relationship conflict when bringing up problems.
- Having parents or family members who were often passive-aggressive.
- Not knowing how to productively talk about problems.
- Feeling angry with a person but unprepared to discuss your anger.
Some examples of passive-aggressive behavior include:
- Making back-handed compliments. “Thanks for cleaning up the kitchen this morning instead of trashing it.”
- Passively punishing someone for a perceived slight. For example, rather than discussing her hurt feelings, a parent might give her child the silent treatment.
- Speaking negatively about someone to other people, but not directly addressing the problem.
- Procrastinating or deliberately failing to do things.
- Adding invalidating comments into otherwise innocuous or productive conversation. For example, “Is there any reason you didn’t clean up the kitchen?” contains the presumption that there can’t possibly be a valid reason.
- Refusing to move beyond conflict, even while insisting the conflict is resolved.
- Sabotaging others. For example, inviting a friend who is trying to save money on a shopping trip might be a form of passive aggression.
- Getting quiet, sullen, or distant in response to a perceived slight.
- Making comments that can be deflected as a simple misunderstanding. When questioned about passive-aggressive behavior, people who are passive-aggressive may tend to insist that the other person is misunderstanding or being unfair.
- Deliberately not saying what one really feels. For example, a person might insist they were fine when they’re really not and be angry with a loved one for not noticing their hurt feelings. Or they might say “yes” when they really want to say “no,” then behave in resentful ways.
- Deliberately doing things you know irritate the other person, such as showing up late or forgetting special events.
- Making sarcastic or condescending comments.
- Shifting responsibility. “I’m not mad at you. I’m just in a bad mood because you woke me up too early.”
- Relying on others to decipher the meaning or intent of indirect communication or actions.
Some hallmarks of direct, effective, non passive-aggressive behavior include:
- Directly and specifically talking about communication issues and relationship problems, without blame or hostility.
- Owning one’s own feelings.
- Listening to the other person’s perspective, including when they are critical of your behavior.
- Not assuming that another person knows what you want, understands why you are upset, or should easily be able to decipher your behavior.
- Treating the other person as a partner for resolving the conflict, not as an enemy.
Sometimes practicing direct communication in a nonthreatening setting is helpful for eliminating passive-aggressive behavior.
How to Stop Being Passive-Aggressive in a Relationship
Passive-aggressive behavior is inherently self-defeating. It fuels conflict and resentment. Over time, this decreases the likelihood that direct communication will be successful. It also erodes trust and communication and can make a person seem unreasonable and hostile when the real problem is communication style, not emotions.
The first step toward eliminating passive aggression is to understand its source. Is the passive aggression limited to a specific relationship, or a widespread form of coping? Do certain situations trigger passive-aggressive behavior? Are you aware of when you are being passive-aggressive? What happens when you communicate more directly? Sometimes practicing direct communication in a nonthreatening setting is helpful for eliminating passive-aggressive behavior.
For some people, passive aggression can become so integrated into their personality that it undermines most relationships. Passive-aggressive personality disorder, sometimes called negativistic personality disorder, is characterized by a widespread avoidance of direct communication. People with this personality diagnosis may have a long pattern of troubled relationships and may feel resentful about reasonable demands to directly communicate without hostility. This personality diagnosis is neither well-researched nor well-understood, and it is not listed in the DSM-5.
Therapy can help people identify harmful communication styles and establish better communication. Couples counseling may help when a relationship is so destructive or filled with conflict that partners don’t feel safe talking directly to one another. Individual counseling can help people identify the reasons for passive-aggressive communication and rehearse more effective strategies.
To find a compassionate therapist who can help with passive aggression, click here.
- Carey, B. (2004, November 16). Oh, fine. You’re right. I’m passive-aggressive. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/16/health/psychology/oh-fine-youre-right-im-passiveaggressive.html
- Hall-Flavin, D. K. (2016, June 9). What is passive-aggressive behavior? What are some of the signs? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/passive-aggressive-behavior/faq-20057901
- Hopwood, C. J., & Wright, A. G. (2012). A comparison of passive-aggressive and negativistic personality disorders. Journal of Personality Assessment, 94(3), 296-303. doi: 10.1080/00223891.2012.655819
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