Therapy in Philadelphia / Hidden Hostility - Uncovering Passive Aggression passive aggression is characterized by procrastination, an inability to say no, insecurity, being covertly obstructive to unwanted people or ideas, always playing the role of the innocent victim, and trying to subtly control others by making small digs, changing the subject, and being evasive. All this can sound a little clinical, and indeed it can be hard to recognize when you are in the middle of it. Consider the following scenario: Linda tells her husband Bob that and old friend of hers is coming to town with his wife, and she’d like to have both of them over for dinner.
* Bob is clearly reluctant about the idea, perhaps even a little insecure about what Linda’s relationship was with her male friend, but he says okay. Linda asks him repeatedly, “Are you sure you don’t mind?” and “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable,” but Bob always answers with an unassuming, “I’m fine, why do you ask?” So phone calls are made, the dinner is planned, and the night finally arrives.
This is one of the biggest signs of a passive aggressive man – his inability to say no, even when that’s obviously how he feels. What he says clearly doesn’t match up with what he means and how he feels. When Linda tries to give him the opportunity to open up or even just get out oft it, he is evasive, answering her questions with a question so he is now “the interrogator” instead of her, and in control of the situation. Also, note his insecurity.
* However, just before the guests are due, Bob “suddenly remembers” a household project that he promised he’d finish before the weekend. Assuring Linda it will only take a moment, he takes his tool-belt and some duct-tape and disappears into the plumbing in the basement. The guests arrive, and Linda tries to make them feel comfortable, and everyone is waiting for Bob.
Procrastination is another passive aggressive trademark, so it’s not unusual for Bob to have some project sitting undone that he can use as an escape here. When a passive aggressive makes excuses, he will usually try to make them at least sound reasonable, like doing housework before guests arrive to have things in order for them. However, waiting until right before the guests arrive and then conveniently needing to be the good host by fixing up the house is very passive aggressive.
* Soon dinner is ready, but no Bob. When Linda goes downstairs to ask if he’s almost done, and couldn’t it wait until later, Bob replies that he doesn’t believe in leaving a job half-finished (which he’s somehow never mentioned before) and that he can’t leave it at this point or there won’t be enough hot water, and keeps working. Finally, after another hour, Bob comes upstairs, covered in dust and bits of plaster.
Again, a passive aggressive makes his excuses seem reasonable, because it gives him a defense later – surely no one could fault him for not wanting to leave in the middle of project or deny his guests plenty of hot water? Later on, it will be easy to claim that he was just trying to make everyone comfortable, when of course he’s really doing the opposite.
* Linda tries to hint that he may want to clean up before dinner, but he brushes her off by saying loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Oh honey, you shouldn’t make our guests wait, I’m sure they’re hungry.” So he sits down at the table looking like a construction worker just off the job-site.
Passing the blame is a telltale sign of a passive aggressive. Even though it’s Linda who has obviously been trying to keep the guests comfortable and get them fed, with on sentence Bob makes her seem inconsiderate and himself look like the good guy – at least to him.
* When Linda offers him food, he says that he isn’t hungry, and sits through the whole meal in front of an empty plate, watching everyone else eat. Linda is uncomfortable, her guests are uncomfortable, and the night dies pretty early.
Again, Bob is covertly trying to obstruct a situation he doesn’t like. This is passive, because he acts willing to be at the dinner table and interact with the guests. It’s aggressive because he is clearly making them feel uncomfortable and unwanted with his appearance and his refusal to eat.
* After Linda shows her guests out to their car, she slams the door and glares at Bob. Bob looks hurt and says “What did I do?”
All passive aggressives cast themselves as innocent victims in situations where their motivations are actually very aggressive. Being able to deny fault is the key to a passive aggressive’s strategy.
While the specifics are unique for each individual, the emotional cues are the same – Bob is displaying classic passive aggressive behavior. It’s obvious he didn’t want this dinner party to happen, but instead of just saying no, he procrastinated, invented stories and excuses, and acted in such as way that the dinner was ruined and the guests left – exactly what he wanted from the start. If Linda says he was avoiding them, he will claim he was just trying to fix up the house for his guests; if she says he made people uncomfortable, he will claim that he was trying to be polite by not making them wait for him to clean up; if she says he should have eaten he’ll say that he wasn’t hungry and play the victim by being upset that she would force him to eat when he didn’t want to. Bob’s actions may be hard to fault on a technical level, but his emotions and motivations are clear. Unfortunately it’s impossible to prove emotions, so while Linda knows that what he did was rude to her and her guests, she’ll have a very hard time pinning anything on him.
Does something about Bob seem a little too familiar? Passive aggression is common. It’s something that many girlfriends and spouses deal with every day, and it could be something that you are dealing with. Once you recognize that the man you are with is passive aggressive, you have a few options. The first option is to try to work with him to fix it yourself. This is usually successful in mild cases, where the man is only passive aggressive in one or two areas of his life. If he is more reasonable about other aspects of his relationship, you may be able to show him the difference between how he acts normally and when he was being passive aggressive, and help him correct it. Make him feel that it is safe for him to express his anger or frustration on any subject without worrying that you will react negatively, and help create channels of open, honest communication. Remember that you can’t just tell him he’s being passive aggressive and expect him to stop – passive aggression is something that needs to be solved by working closely with another person.
If the problem is severe and you don’t feel that you are the right person to help him, therapy is an excellent option. A therapist will have the necessary training to help your partner, to teach him to see the pattern of passive aggression and recognize it’s root cause in order to correct the problem. In many cases, this is the best option. Passive aggression is often a deep-seated problem, and as much as you love your partner and want to help him yourself, it may simply require the help of a professional. You can always help your partner by being supportive and talking to him, but letting him (or convincing him) to work with a therapist may be the best thing you can do.
The third option is one that no one wants, but it is sometimes the only answer. When your partner is chronically passive aggressive and refuses to try to change, the only choice that is respectful to you and your well-being is to leave the relationship. When this is the case, remember that it is not your fault. Many women may feel guilty and blame their inability to change him, but the truth is that the problem is his inability to change himself. Relationships take commitment, and effort, and honesty, and if you are putting all that into a relationship, then that’s what you deserve to get out of it.
Passive aggression isn’t always a chronic condition, nor is it always a bad thing. Everyone uses it sometimes, because we understand that taking a few jabs at the boss around the water cooler is probably more reasonable, and smarter, than screaming at him like we’d sometimes like to do. If everyone said exactly what they were feeling every time they were angry, nothing would ever get done and no one would get along. A bit of passive aggression as a release mechanism keeps us sane in situations that may feel a little unfair, but that we really aren’t in a position to change. There are even situations where passive aggression is good for making a point, as we can see by looking at Gandhi and the African American Civil Rights Movement.
Unfortunately, using a little bit of passive aggression every now and again is much different than someone who uses it as a chronic response, and a romantic relationship is not one of those situations where passive aggression is helpful. It may be hard to admit when you are in a relationship with a man who is passive aggressive – it can be hard to see because of how close you are to the situation, and it can always be difficult to confront the flaws in someone you love. But it is important to understand that chronic passive aggression is not something you can just “deal with” or ignore. Being in a relationship with someone who is passive aggressive is very detrimental to your self-esteem, and even your mental health. It is important for you to understand that you are worth more, and you deserve to be with someone who will give you honesty, sincerity, and dependability. Remember: you are worth it, and that’s something any good partner should recognize.