Passive-aggressive behavior is indirect, aggressive action. It often involves us manipulating people and situations to avoid having to directly deal with a person or problem, and it is most often fear-based, plain and simple. Although underlying mental health conditions, such as ADHD or depression, can lead to passive-aggressive behavior, it can also be driven by a fear of vulnerability, feelings of shame, or low self-esteem, all of which can be worked though, and new, healthier habits can be created. But if the underlying cause of the behavior is not addressed, ultimately passive-aggressive behavior can really hurt our ability to connect with others, especially those we care about most. Here are three examples of passive-aggressive behaviors that can undermine true connection in our relationships:
1. Gossiping to avoid direct communication
There may be people in your family or close group who you know LOVE to have or share the inside scoop. Telling others how you really feel about a particular situation is not as hard as telling your partner to their face. It might get brought up one way or another in the long run. But until then, at least, you’ve gotten it off your chest without any real skin in the game. If your partner finds out, but you didn’t have to face the fear of sitting them down and telling them how you really feel, you’ve missed an opportunity to create a boundary or express a need. This can also cause trust issues. Someone who loves and respects you, will accept your boundaries and needs, and tell you theirs. That creates a balanced relationship, where you and your partner both feel safe.
2. The silent treatment
“If I sit over here and sulk, let out a few heavy sighs, they will ask me what’s wrong.” Sound familiar? Or maybe you have gotten pissed off because you’re always left to clean up the kitchen by yourself. But instead of communicating that, you angrily and loudly slam the dishes into the cabinet or dishwasher, waiting for someone to ask you what’s wrong. (It sounds silly to talk or read about it, but it happens all the time.) I know asking someone to get up off the couch to help clean up the kitchen sounds simple, but you, “wouldn’t want to put anyone out.” Instead, you just sulk about it, or get pissed off, so they will notice and hop up and volunteer, because that’s easier than reaching out.
Most people do actually want to be helpful (except maybe teenagers) but everyone might not share your need for neatness or order in your living space. But rather than talk about all of this, you let your fear of being a bother or fear of authentic communication keep you silent. And you make judgements about what’s behind the others’ apparent lack of desire to help. Silently deciding how someone feels without genuine communication robs you both of an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of each other’s needs. The silent treatment helps no one.
It’s not always about dishes, there may be bigger topics that you and your partner need to discuss. An easy opener to a conversation might go something like this: “Hey, something has been bothering me, do you have a few minutes to hear me out?” Avoid the dreaded, “We need to talk”, which puts people on the defensive. Talking about how something makes you FEEL rather than focusing on what your partner is doing or not doing, is less argumentative. You are simply communicating your feelings about a behavior and not judging that person for being right or wrong. Also, don’t expect someone to read your mind based on your body language; some people need things clearly spelled out for them.
3. Allowing your partner to make all of the decisions so you don’t have to be the one blamed if it doesn’t work out.
Let’s say you approach your partner about a weekend getaway, and they are all for it. You start to toss out ideas, research hotels, suggest restaurants, etc. But your partner has no input saying, “I want this weekend to be about you.” Sound familiar? So off you go. But when you arrive, the hotel overbooked and has to relocate you to a different property, 30 miles away. The service at the new hotel sucks and they only have a small room with two twin beds available. The nearby restaurant is now no longer nearby, and they have a dress code that you don’t meet, and they failed to record your reservation, so now you have a 2 hour wait. They take pity on you and seat you anyway, but when you finally eat, it’s late and the food sucks, even though a trusted friend said it was one of the best places they have ever eaten. When you finally get back to the hotel and in bed, the fire alarm goes off and you have to exit the building and stand in the parking lot, in a light rain. The rest of the weekend goes about like that first day.
You planned it. You made all the decisions. This weekend was “about you”, remember? You feel terrible guilt. Your partner may not say it outright, but their demeanor, and questions such as, “why did you pick this place to eat?” tell you everything you need to know. If you express even the slightest frustration to your partner about even one of the many things that went wrong that weekend, you’re met with the “it was your idea” eyebrow raise and accusatory look. And rest assured, it will come up again. It will be the ammunition your partner uses in the next fight to make you feel less than.
I have been on both sides of these and many other similar situations in past relationships. I have learned first-hand how passive-aggressive behavior can get in the away of our ability to connect with our partners or others. On the flip side, learning to set healthy boundaries and speak my truth without fear of anyone else’s reaction to it, has set me free and allowed me to live more confidently and authentically. It has given me the ability to connect deeply with those I love.
If you feel that you or someone you love have tendencies towards passive-aggressive behavior, or you simply lack assertiveness, take this test to get a general idea, or just to get more clarity. I would love to work with you on being more assertive, confident, and living as your authentic self. Schedule a Free 30 minute Discovery Call to see if my services would have value to you. I hope to hear from you soon!