How to Deal With a Passive-Aggressive Relationship

passive-aggressive

Passive-aggressive is often a blanket description given to a particular personality type,”The person always behaves in this way and displays these characteristics.” In fact, it’s not always so clear cut. While there are definitely people who are passive-aggressive types (commonly suffering from Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder, see footnote), most often it is learned behavior displayed by many of us in order to make our feelings felt by others without actually verbalizing them. And it is rife in the arena of personal relationships. Everyone is passive-aggressive at one time or another. Even you.

So What is Passive-Aggressiveness?

Passive-aggressive behavior happens when a person’s outward actions and words do not convey their inner thoughts and opinions. They may be feeling anger, fear, resentment or hostility, but disguise it by certain behavior. A classic sign might be someone who feels they are taken for granted by their family and doing the chores while constantly sighing, or completing them badly.

passive aggressive what did i do
Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash

Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Julienne and Bo work full-time. They are busy people and often struggle to keep things running smoothly at home. It’s one of Bo’s chores to empty the dishwasher and put the crockery and utensils away. He hates this job so amuses himself by putting items in the wrong place, or stacking objects so they are almost bound to topple. He knows it drives Julienne crazy, especially when she’s preparing a meal and reaches for something and it isn’t there. She retaliates by slamming around the kitchen. Neither voices their dissatisfaction. Yet something so trivial can seep into the rest of their evening, causing unspoken friction. 

Jared is unhappy about some aspect of family life and he attempts to be open and start a discussion with his wife, Petra. He’s calm and considered, describes the problem and asks if they can have a discussion. Petra replies, “Sure, whatever.” And leaves the room. Jared is left frustrated and angry. When he confronts Petra about it, she says, “Oh, I didn’t realize you wanted to talk about it there and then.” 

Christopher’s girlfriend hates his driving. She doesn’t criticize him out loud but she’ll make a point of holding on to the door, or grimacing when he takes a corner a little too fast. In retaliation he drives too close to the curb, or deliberately aims for potholes.

Carolann knows she has upset her husband, Seth. She’s not sure what she’s done to make him angry so she tries to make amends by cooking him his favorite meal. He picks at it and tells her he’s not hungry, leaving her feeling upset. Within an hour he’s in the kitchen looking for a snack.

Signs of Passive-Aggressiveness in Your Partner

  • Sighing, eye-rolling
  • Sarcasm. 
  • Says things like, “I was just kidding.” Or “Can’t you take a joke?”
  • Gives the silent treatment
  • Withholds affection
  • Acts dismissive, “Yeah, okay, whatever.”
  • Plays the martyr. Doing things with barely disguised resentment
  • Blames you
  • Denies responsibility
  • Completes tasks shoddily so that their partner has to re-do or finish the job properly
  • Practices deliberate procrastination or 'forgetfulness'
  • Expects you to know what they want without them actually telling you
  • Punishes you in subtle ways
  • Back-handed compliments
  • Muttering an insult as they walk away
  • Slamming doors
  • Saying, “What did you say it like that for?” Usually, there’s two-way passive-aggression happening
  • Retelling a conversation that never happened, “Yes, you said you would…”
  • Starting a fight by saying, “Don’t start now.”
  • Holding in anger over a perceived slight, then eventually exploding in frustration because your partner hasn’t apologized
  • You or your partner plays the victim.

Signs You Are on the Receiving End

You feel:

  • As if you are in conflict but aren’t sure why, although you have your suspicions.
  • Inadequate/stupid/inept/guilty.
  • You are supposed to know what’s on their mind.
  • As though you expect too much.
  • Angry and frustrated.
  • You try and try to do the right thing but your efforts go unappreciated or undermined.
  • Confused. You aren’t sure what just happened.
  • Forced into having a disagreement.
  • Like you are agreeing to do something you don’t want to do.
  • Disquiet or discomfort after interacting with your partner but you don’t know why.
  • As though everything is your fault.
passive-aggressive confused
Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

How to Deal with Passive-Aggressive Behavior

When passive-aggressive behavior occurs early on in a relationship, you may decide to give the person a second chance. After all there may be a good reason why they were ‘off’ on that particular occasion. Yet, if you begin to see a pattern, you need to decide whether it’s worth your time and emotional investment. If you feel unhappy more often than unhappy, it might be a good idea to let that person go.

In an established relationship, passive-aggressiveness is a sign that things are not right. If your partner never behaved in this way before, then they are obviously unhappy. Do your best to address the issues. Suggest counseling or ask them outright why they are unhappy. It’s possible they may have problems outside the relationship, such as in work. 

When individual incidents happen, your best course of action is to ignore them. At the same time, don’t allow your partner to overstep your boundaries. It is important for them to know that you will not accept being manipulated or bullied.

Another tactic is to use humor to break the tension. This also shows the other person that their behavior does not affect you.

Remember that passive-aggressive behavior towards you is rarely about you. However, ask yourself honestly, if anything you are doing or saying is triggering your partner’s behavior.  If the answer is yes, modify your own behavior and responses.


Refrain from:

  • Blaming
  • Accusing
  • Hostility
  • Trying to reason with them.

Do try:

  • Ignoring the behavior and smiling
  • Humor when appropriate
  • Maintaining your boundaries
  • Examining your own behavior and responses
  • Counseling if necessary.

Some relationships consist of two passive-aggressive partners. Somehow, they stay together while conducting a quiet, silent, raging war punctuated by sarcasm and spite. If this is the case with your relationship, don’t you want to sort it out? Why don’t you want to be happy with your partner? Only you can answer those questions. 

Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder

Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder or PAPD is when someone is borderline narcissistic. It generally stems from childhood and is a result of inbuilt personality traits and a disturbed or traumatic upbringing. This is a serious problem and requires professional psychiatric help.

Featured photo by Yun Heng Lin on Unsplash

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