Once a psychiatric diagnostic label becomes part of our everyday language, it often loses specificity in meaning. Passive-aggression, like narcissism is one of these labels. One of the main misuses of this specific psychiatric label is attributing all communications meant to veil aggressive thoughts and feelings as passive-aggressive. Take for example, “You look so much better than you did yesterday.” Indeed, this statement’s insult to how you looked yesterday speaks more strongly than its compliment. At least, some people would agree with me, here. But still, it is not a real example of how passive-aggressive personalities express their hostility. We often mistake left-handed compliments, and the like, as a sign of passive-aggressive behavior. It’s understandable why you’d make this mistake, although it is wrong.
Veiled aggression, like backhanded compliments are not really hallmarks of the true passive-aggressive personality disorder. Rather, passive-aggressive behavior is subtler, harder to pinpoint, and thus more confusing to its recipient. Just ask people who live with passive-aggressive partners. By the time they get to therapy, they have had their fill of their partner’s behaviors that are meant to frustrate and impede their way.
Is It Just Plain Hostility That Drives Them?
Acting-out hostility toward others is not the main goal of passive-aggressive behavior. Although, if you’re on the receiving end of this type of behavior, it certainly can feel this way.
It’s fear rather than hostility alone that drives passive-aggressive behavior. Passive-aggressive people are fearful of being controlled by other people and of having their vulnerabilities exposed. They’ve learned to frustrate and obstruct people’s way, to get them to act out the frustration and anger that they themselves feel, but are fearful of expressing.
A passive-aggressive behavior pattern is learned in childhood. The parents of passive-aggressive adults raised their children to be agreeable, polite, and willing to submerge their needs, thoughts, and feelings for the sake of cooperation. They viewed disagreement, conflict, and an open expression of needs and differences as impolite, disruptive, demanding, and at the extreme, out of control and crazy. Many of these parents were stressed and physically or emotionally incapable of dealing with their children’s needs. There may have been a family member who was labeled as “crazy” or “damaged”, which made them fearful of emotional expression. Or, perhaps, they are immigrants who over-valued agreeableness over a full-range of self-expression in their children, so that they are accepted into the new culture. Or, maybe their efforts to hide a family secret, like alcoholism, gambling, sexual abuse, or mental-illness makes them afraid to let their children speak their truth. Whichever is the circumstance, the children learn to submerge their true needs, thoughts, and feelings to get people’s approval.
Passive-aggressive people are not just hostile jerks who don’t have enough back bone to express their anger directly, rather, they are angry at being controlled; at not being allowed to speak their truth. Relationships that involve dependency, intimacy, and control are most apt to activate their passive-aggression, as they stimulate fears and behaviors from the past. Thus, coworkers, supervisors, friends, and especially spouses, beware; you are at risk for becoming the passive-aggressive person’s dancing partner, where he or she maneuvers you into acting out unbridled self-expression of which they can disapprove, reject, and withdraw from you as their parents once did.
An Act of Passive-Aggression Isn’t Complete Until You Fulfill It
You are most apt to be pulled into the dance of passive-aggression, when you least expect it. You may feel like you are being snared into a web of conflicted communications and interactions. Before you realize what is happening, you are caught up in a drama in which your passive-aggressive partner has cast you as the unreasonable, out-of-control, emotionally-volatile partner. The following are some of the dramas the passive-aggressive person maneuvers people into.
- Procrastination: Passive-aggressive people obstruct you to control and get a rise out of you; procrastination is the way they do this. You can tell them till you are blue in the face what you need and want from them, and still, there will be a reason why they didn’t or couldn’t follow through. To get around this problem, you say to yourself, “I’ll give him or her a deadline or a schedule,” right? No. You’ve just given them something concrete that they can deny you. Moreover, you’ve set yourself up to act-out their anger for them. Yes, one of the hallmarks of passive-aggressive behavior is getting you to act-out their needs, wishes, and emotions that they cannot do for themselves. Recommendation: Do not give them schedules and deadlines. Let them decide when and how things should get done. Take away opportunities for them to control you through their inaction. I know this isn’t easy. You will have to choose your wars carefully, so to speak, so that you don’t end up handling all of the relationship matters. He may feel punished by you, but you are really giving him a chance to take responsibility for his behavior. If you want a dependable mate, you have to stop taking responsibility for his problems.
- Forgetfulness: Forgetfulness is another way that they control and get a rise out of you. Forgetting isn’t a personal weakness, they say to themselves. True, everyone forgets things at times, although, it’s more than a pastime for passive-aggressive people. Forgetting to pay the bill, remembering your birthday, or sending the taxes in on time is simply a result of something that happened to them, like too much stress, or feeling ill. Nonetheless, overtime, you will increasingly distrust your partner’s ability to follow through on things, so that you take on a lot of the living responsibilities. Recommendation: You most likely won’t believe that I’m going to tell you this, but here it goes. You yourself fulfill these daily responsibilities. You’ll relieve yourself from a lot of stress. At the least, do this until your partner gets enough therapy to change.
- Losing Things: Finally, losing things is another way to frustrate, control, and to get a rise out of you. These personalities constantly lose things. Rather than admit to this tendency in them, they tend to blame others for the loss. You moved it or distracted them. Blaming you is a way to get you to solve their problems but also a way to act aggressive toward their dependency upon you. You most likely are baffled right now by the complexity of their actions. Imagine what it’s like living with such persons. You have to be on your best game, so to speak, to cope with them. Recommendation: Above all else, do not accept blame for this tendency in them and do not engage in conflicted banter around it. Simply, let them know that you hope they find what they lost. And, go on to whatever it is that you were doing.
- Blaming You and Playing the Victim: Passive-aggressive people do not want to recognize their faults or take responsibility for their behavior. They want to blame you. If you confront them about failing to do something, and even worse, if you do it with anger or emotional intensity, they will call you out-of-control, angry, crazy, or difficult and demanding, as they love to play the victim. Getting you to feel guilty is a passive expression of their aggression. Recommendation: Blaming them is like calling them impolite, disagreeable, recalcitrant, and out-of-control, like their parents did to them when they were children. As hard as this is, you must resist letting them maneuver you into guilt or extreme emotions and actions in response to their passive-aggression.
- Rejecting and Withdrawing From You: If they cannot easily pull you into their passive-aggressive dance, they will reject and withdraw from you to make you feel insecurely attached to them. Remember, they had to act compliant and non-confronting to secure their parents love and approval. This is what they want from you. If you haven’t acted accordingly, they will give you the silent treatment, so that you feel as insecurely attached to them, as they once did to their parents. Recommendation: Be mindful of your insecurities from your own past. Passive-aggressive people usually partner-up with people who felt rejected by one or both parents in their own childhood. Recognize that your partner’s silent treatment is stimulating insecurities from the past; don’t act these insecurities out. Own these feelings, contain them, and let them go.
Thus, above all else, do not become the passive-aggressive person’s dancing partner. This is the only way that you will get them to take responsibility for their problems and seek the therapy they need to cope healthily with their fears. Remember, they fear dependency and intimacy and will maneuver you into fulfilling their deepest fears. They need you to act irrational, angry, out-of-control, and emotionally intense, to keep the dance going and to detach enough from you to feel emotionally safe.
On your part, it takes a lot of insight and effort to resist being pulled into the dance of passive-aggression with your partner. But, this is what you have to do to continue a relationship with them. If you are getting the impression that you are the one who will have to change the most to have a less conflicted relationship with them, for the most part, you are right. You have to decide if you value the relationship and history between you enough to know if the relationship is worth continuing. I find that many couples find this is the case. Passive-aggressive personalities are difficult to live with, but they are also fine, likable people. Truly, I cannot think of one passive-aggressive patient who I didn’t really like. In fact, I liked them very much, especially, because I understood their motivations and fears. For the most part, they are fearful, rather than hostile jerks.
From the face of things, it’s you, rather than your passive-aggressive partner, who seems demanding, unreasonable, and difficult with which to live. It is because you have gotten into the dance of acting out your partner’s anger for him or her, rather than something that is true about you. You can find happiness living with a passive-aggressive person; you will just have to dedicate yourself to learning how to be mindful in the relationship so that you know what is your emotional baggage versus what is his or hers’.
Remember, we choose psychologically what we need, rather than what we want. So, there’s a reason why you chose a passive-aggressive personality with which to share your life. Most people who are attracted to passive-aggressive mates have been very wounded in the past and are used to taking responsibility for others’ problems and pain. For you, your passive-aggressive mate may be the parent from your past who rejected you or put you into the role of having to parent yourself. The anger you feel toward your mate is the anger you feel toward your own parent(s) for not being emotionally supportive of you. The partners of passive-aggressive people usually have a past similar to their partners. But, they coped with it by becoming emotionally-expressive, take-charge people.
Tips for Therapy
- As the partner to a passive-aggressive mate, you will have to watch that you don’t get an unskilled therapist who doesn’t fully understand your hurt, pain, and anger. You are very wounded, and most likely at your wit’s end with regard to the relationship. It does not feel good to be at the receiving end of passive-aggression. Find a therapist who understands and has empathy for you and your mate and does not divide you both up into the good and bad partners. As strange as this sounds, it does happen, especially, if your therapist has unresolved issues him or herself with passive-aggressive tendencies.
- Additionally, your therapist should provide the right therapy environment for lowering of defenses enough, so that he or she can intervene in the pattern of passive-aggressive behavior. Remember, all of our behavior patterns get stored as a fight-or-flight response to stress in the brain’s deepest structures. Your therapist has to convey on many levels comfort, to lower the defenses of the passive-aggressive person. Only then, can therapy help to loosen the nerve and motor wiring around this deeply ingrained personality pattern. Therapist attributes should include being mindfully present to him/herself, and to the needs of each partner, trustworthy, knowledgeable, on the sides of both partners, and the relationship as a whole, assertive and able to take control of the therapy, and a warm way of engaging that disarms aggression.
- Therapists who have a very good knowledge of both the psychodynamic talk and couples and marital therapies are best with a passive-aggressive relationship dynamic. And, needless to say, given the nature of the problem, assertive therapists who are very capable of structuring the therapy are better here than ones who solely reflect and let the therapy go wherever it wants. More assertive therapists are willing to disrupt arguments and promote healthier interactions.
I hope today’s post helped you to understand passive-aggression better. Take what you need, from this post and others, to gain insight into yourself and loved ones, to make better living choices, and to live the best life possible. This is what I hope for you.
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