One of my faults is that I can sometimes be impulsive, but I’ll put that impulsiveness to good use here by giving you the punch line first: Passive-aggressive people know that they’re passive-aggressive, so all you need to do is point it out to them when it happens! With so many problems, telling someone they have a given problem is more annoying than it’s worth because they so often don’t see it in themselves. But trust me when I say that people who are passive-aggressive have gotten this feedback from other people for years. When dealing with someone who gets passive-aggressive, you don’t need to give thousands of details or examples to substantiate your point; just say the words “passive-aggressive” and he or she will instantly know 1) what you mean, and 2) that you’re probably right – even if they won’t admit it.
What is passive-aggressive behavior exactly?
Passive-aggressive behavior is behavior in which someone, with one fell swoop, attempts two separate goals: to express anger toward you, and to frustrate you. And, boy, are passive-aggressive people good at knowing how to push a person’s buttons. The truth is, passive-aggressive men and women usually have a low self-esteem and feel insecure and powerless much of the time. They don’t feel strong or sturdy enough to confront you in a direct and straightforward way, but they feel angry and emotional and can only express themselves in a way that is intended to cast them in a meek light, as if to say, ‘Who, me? I didn’t say or do anything!’ Yeah, right.
Frequent examples of passive-aggressive behavior in romantic relationships: he likes to be on time, but she’s been angry with him for a long time and intentionally takes her time getting ready to leave for something and has no problem making him late; he accepts work telephone calls in the middle of a meal, and she’s resentful and tells him with a weird look, “I know you love your job sooo much;” he flirts with other women and then plays with her head when she brings up the issue with him; and he gets upset and freezes her out completely, but all the while refuses to admit that he’s angry.
Regardless of what causes a person to become passive-aggressive (again, low self-worth mixed with anger), this type of adolescent – no, elementary school – behavior should be absolutely unacceptable in any relationship between two adults.
How to stop this behavior as soon as you identify it…
What makes passive-aggressive people difficult to deal with is the fact that they’re often so slick. In other words, sometimes it takes a minute, an hour, or even a day or two to figure out that his behavior is, in fact, passive-aggressive. As a result, you need to follow a few steps to make sure that you put this behavior to bed for good.
Making decisions is a frequent trigger of passive-aggressive behavior.
The decision that triggers passive-aggressive behavior could be small (where to go for dinner, and he sulks through the meal because he didn’t get to go where he wanted) or big (where to go for vacation, and she moans about all her responsibilities back at home because he chose the vacation spot). If you are in a relationship with someone who has a history of being passive-aggressive, understand that when he doesn’t get his way after the two of you have to make a joint decision, he may get passive-aggressive.
Tell him directly that you’re afraid he’s being passive aggressive.
Say, “I really hope that I’m not right, but I have this feeling that you’re being passive-aggressive.” Continue by saying, “Let me tell you the specific things you’re doing that I’m having a negative reaction to,” and then give him specifics. The goal is not to have him say, “You’re right” right away, so say your peace and then give him some time (a few hours, a day) to digest it. Finally, conclude your talk by saying, “When I start feeling this way, it makes me feel less close to you. From now on, I’m asking that you voice your anger or annoyance with me more directly.” At this point, take a few hours that day to be by yourself or in the company of friends or family you trust. If you live together, you can spend some time in another room so that you have space from his problematic and unfair behavior.
Rinse and repeat.
Every time you are on the receiving end of this kind of passive-aggressive behavior, practice this same exact protocol: Identify what you believe is passive-aggressive behavior; state the specific behaviors that are passive-aggressive; give her time to correct the behavior; and ask him to start being more direct with you when he is angry or upset. Trust that this protocol works. He will inevitably get sick and tired of hearing the same script from you when he tries his passive-aggressive behaviors, so he will stop pulling the same stunts in order to avoid the same lecture. The added bonus for you is that having this routine protocol to use allows you to simply recite the script when it happens, as opposed to taking the behavior personally, trying to figure out his motivations, or letting the behavior upset you yet again.
Dr. Seth is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, Psychology Today blogger, and TV guest expert. He practices in Los Angeles and treats a wide range of issues and disorders and specializes in relationships, parenting, and addiction. He has had extensive training in conducting couples therapy and is the author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.