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Defusing the Passive-Aggressive

Ask her “What’s Wrong?” and she replies “Nothing . . .” followed by that variety of deafening silence that means anything but nothing. Then a few minutes, hours or days later, hurtful remarks are fired at you as if out of the blue. It is undoubtedly frustrating to deal with passive-aggressive behavior, but you’ll find that a few moments spent defusing the situation will go a long way in improving the quality of your relationship so that the two of you can go back to enjoying the very best of each other.

Understanding Her Passive-Aggressive Behavior Passive-aggressive behavior at its heart is the display of poor communication skills: a person feels frustration but is unable to express those emotions clearly and openly, so their expression sputters out in maladaptive ways. Ironically there is a strong desire in a passive-aggressive person to become closer to their partner by discussing what bothers them, but instead their behavior tends to drive them away, further adding fuel to the fires of frustration. Passive-aggressive behavior in a relationship rarely appears overnight.

Usually it has been ingrained in a person’s personality as an emotional coping mechanism for a long time. If someone grows up in a household in which the expression of any negative emotion was discourage, for instance, frustration may have been routinely repressed until reaching a critical point. Once it becomes more uncomfortable to stifle these negative emotions than to express them, they come out quickly and with force, usually let out in mean-spirited verbal barbs full of blame and periods of silent moodiness. Another cause of passive-aggressive coping mechanisms is spending a lot of time around other passive-aggressive people who have accepted the maladaptive communication style as the accepted norm. These people could be parents, siblings, friends, and even past partners. Passive-aggressive behavior can also be seen in someone who has a dependent personality or who tends to look at things in all-or-nothing terms.

Whatever the root cause, the good news is that passive-aggressive does not make that someone a bad person—but it does make them someone who has some work to do in the area of interpersonal communication and self-esteem. 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. Working on correcting passive-aggressive tendencies will make for a more emotionally stable and healthy relationship with your partner.

Here is a guide to defusing the top two passive-aggressive behaviors in relationships:

The Silent Treatment–She Says…Nothing despondently while bearing a sad look on her face, shoulders facing downward in “mope” stance.

She meansI am upset about something but am afraid to express myself to you because I do not want to jeopardize the bond that we share. I would really like you to inquire about what’s wrong and pay attention to what I have to say because it’s important to me. 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 lots of compassion to listen to my concerns, and I’ll do it multiple times until I am absolutely sure that you seem attentive and compassionate to my needs.

What to Do…The first few times you recognize this behavior, 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 behavior 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 Dart Throwing–She SaysMean one-liners full of blame and accusations, and appears anxious and angry, despite being half-engaged in another task, such as reading a magazine in the passenger side of a car while on a long day trip or doing small chores around the house. She may be unable to make eye contact with you while delivering these barbs in your direction, and so appears to be focused in her other task. Or she may go for the direct assault, followed by tears and apologies.

She Means…I am really frustrated by something that you’re doing (or not doing), and probably have been for some time but haven’t said anything, or if I did it was only a hint because I was afraid of “rocking the boat” until it became something that was absolutely intolerable. So now my emotions are so intense I feel like I could burst and feel really bad about it.

What to Do…Even though it’s hard to stay calm when the woman you love is giving you a laundry list of everything negative about yourself, try not to overreact. Hear her out with undivided attention and reassure her that you still love her and that any concern that she takes seriously is a concern that you do as well. Encourage her to calm down and clearly—but respectfully—express what her concerns are to you. Resist the urge to be defensive, even if it is warranted for the time being, and also refrain from asking the question that may be obvious to you, “But why didn’t you say anything until now?” If she said something then, chances are passive-aggressive behavior would not even be an issue. She has a hard time expressing negative emotions, so be sure to be compassionate to her shortcoming, and soon enough she could be bringing concerns to your attention a lot sooner. If she has been bottling her frustrations for a while the outburst of them can seem monumental for both of you.

But instead of turning an outburst into a large argument and more hurt (which will only reinforce her notions that she should keep her negative emotions to herself at all times), use it as an opportunity to help teach your partner that your relationship is a safe place to express anything. The safer she feels, the less passive-aggressive outbursts there will be in your relationship. There still may be disagreements, but they will be able to be handled with much more maturity and less hurtful ways.

What are your thoughts or experiences with passive-aggressive behavior? Share your thoughts below.