While aggressive behavior is quite obvious and easily noticed, passive-aggressive behavior can be hard to spot. Passive-aggression is a manipulative form of aggression that is not direct and is easily denied. It’s an indirect way of dealing with anger that often leads to a lot of trouble in your partnership. If passive-aggressive behavior becomes a pattern, it can have a negative impact on your ability to maintain a healthy relationship. 

What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior is an indirect way of expressing negative emotions where you do not communicate them directly. Instead of being overt about your anger or needs, you express them in a very passive manner. There is definitely hostility in this type of behavior, although it is often covert. For example, if your normally punctual spouse is late whenever you pick the movie, they might be acting passive-aggressively. When you confront them, they deny doing this on purpose and offer plausible reasons as to why they were late. While it seems like they’re doing this on purpose, it can be difficult to tell as it is very subtle. Passive-aggressive behavior can have a very negative impact on your relationship.

How To Recognize Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressivion can be difficult to recognize at times. The main way to recognize this behavior is by the uneasy feeling you get when someone is being passive-aggressive. The underlying hostility is pretty obvious and is easy to feel. Common passive-aggressive behaviors include biting sarcasm, backhanded compliments, and sulking. Giving the silent treatment and pretending everything is fine when it clearly isn’t are passive-aggressive behaviors. Procrastinating, or failing to appropriately finish agreed upon tasks are other ways that passive-aggressiveness can occur in your relationship. Those who avoid conflict, have people-pleasing tendencies, and have difficulty expressing their needs, can use passive-aggressive behavior.

Why Engage In Passive-Aggressive Behavior

While everyone uses passive-aggressive behavior at times, it’s harmful to your relationship when this type of behavior occurs often. This is a learned behavior that can be traced back to prior relationships or even childhood. If as a child you witnessed others using passive-aggressive tactics, you may be more likely to use them yourself. If normal expressions of anger aren’t tolerated by an abusive parent, it feels safer to express this emotion indirectly. Likewise, if as a child you witnessed your caregiver’s explosive anger, you may fear anger in others and avoid conflict. If you are afraid of anger, or believe it isn’t appropriate, you may not express it in a healthy way. Passive-aggressive behavior is also associated with anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and ADHD. 

How Passive-Aggressive Behavior Can Harm Your Relationship

Passive-aggressive behavior can have a negative impact on your relationship. Since this behavior is subtle, it can be difficult to know when there are serious issues in your relationship. When you do not share your concerns openly, you can’t find a resolution. If you act in covert ways instead of openly expressing your needs and disappointments, it’s confusing to your partner. When anger is expressed in a healthy way, you can find a resolution and get closure. If instead, you use passive-aggressive tactics, the anger is there and often felt, but it’s just under the surface. This keeps it from being openly discussed and worked through and creates a lot of tension in your relationship. It’s hard to feel close to your partner when they aren’t opening up.

What You Can Do If You Are Being Passive-Aggressive

Once you recognize passive-aggressive behavior in yourself, there are things you can do to stop it. First, you will want to notice how you are feeling when you start acting in passive-aggressive ways. Allow yourself to feel these feelings along with your fear of confrontation. Figure out what your passive-aggressiveness is trying to accomplish, and share this with your partner. For instance, tell your partner you don’t like romantic comedies so you procrastinate when they choose this type of movie and this is why you are late. Instead of using passive-aggressive behavior, establish clear boundaries. Practice being assertive and sharing your feelings and needs with your partner. You can start slow and share unimportant things at first. As you become comfortable opening up to your partner and being direct, you can start discussing important issues as well.

What You Can Do If Your Partner Is Being Passive-Aggressive

If your partner has a pattern of acting in passive-aggressive ways, there are things you can try that might help. Don’t give in to these tactics, take on their responsibilities, or use passive-aggressive behavior yourself. Calling your partner out on their behavior could backfire and create a parent/child relationship dynamic and increase this behavior. However, sharing your own experience can help. Use “I” statements to share what it’s like for you when your partner is using passive-aggressive behavior. Explain how it impacts your relationship, and what you would like instead. Establish clear boundaries in your relationship. Create a safe environment where you can each state your feelings and concerns directly. Respond to your partner’s directness with empathy and compassion, not judgment and criticism. Work together to come up with effective solutions. When directness is expected and accepted, passive-aggressive behavior patterns can change.

Passive-aggressive behavior can cause a lot of problems in your relationship. When you don’t address your needs and feelings of anger directly, it’s hard to find a resolution. If passive-aggressive behavior is an ongoing problem in your relationship, therapy can help. Learning to be more assertive and directly share your needs can help you create and sustain a healthy fulfilling relationship.

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