Confessions of a Passive-Aggressive Husband

I Confess… I am a Passive Aggressive Husband

I have a confession to make. I am a passive-aggressive husband.

I am not proud of it.  And, as a couples therapist, I am not particularly comfortable in admitting it.

I have, however, decided to do something about it because it is crowding out my best self.

So where does my passive-aggression come from? The usual culprit for most relationship struggles is our FOO (family-of-origin). There’s a rub here, however.

Not all men who have been dealt a lousy parental hand wind up as a passive-aggressive husband. Developmental Trauma is a burden on the soul, but it doesn’t determine our fate. Our fate is determined by our capacity to perceive dysfunctional patterns and take ourselves on around them.

It is not the decision of others in our past, it is rather the decisions that we for ourselves today that matter.

And where can the passive-aggressive husband begin to perceive his dysfunctional patterns?

At least that part is easy. Ask yourself “how was anger dealt with in my family of origin?”

Three Types of Dysfunctional Family Anger 

  • The Bull in the China Shop Family.  In this family, Rage is Power. Naked uncompromising aggression is the norm. Screaming, yelling, insults, sarcasm, and intimidation. The angriest family member prevails, and that is what children in this family learn. These children often turn out as aggressive and narcissistic as their parents.
  • The Scream in the Closet Family. For these families, it’s just extremely inappropriate to be angry. Content is secondary, the mere expression of anger is a punishable offense. Only bad, ungrateful people show anger. Children in these families learn to keep their discontent to themselves. A variant on this pattern is one where one family member has a monopoly on anger but calls it something different…like being right for example. Having the last word silences any protest, and sends contrary family anger into the closet where it belongs. The bull has the run of the house and the rest of the family keeps their anger in the closet. That was the story in my family growing up.
  •  The Silent Scream in the Closet Family. These families leave anger hanging in silence. They are utterly non-reactive. Anger is merely the ghost of a feeling. Children in these families learn that anger is utterly futile, and a waste of time and effort.

What all the children of these families learn is a pretty unhealthy relationship with a fundamental human emotion. These children can not express, regulate, or attend to anger in a constructive and relational way.

However, it’s the families that closet anger away that teach similar messages to children. If anger is an inappropriate feeling that children and other family members are not entitled to, passive-aggression becomes a vehicle for not only poorly expressing anger, but often, more importantly, poorly reacting to the anger of a spouse. Passive-aggression is a poverty of recognition and meaning-making.

The Well-Spring of Passive-Aggressive Husbands

Scream in the Closet Families, and Silent Scream in the Closet Families both teach that anger is totally acceptable. The problem here is obvious. Anger is part of being human. However, too much is often made of the passive-aggressive’s inability to express anger at the expense of not fully exploring what anger experienced from a spouse means to the passive aggressive husband.

However, I think some therapists tend to over-emphasize the passive-aggressive husband’s inability to express anger at the expense of not fully exploring what meaning he makes of the anger of his partner. It is the reactivity of the passive-aggressive husband that often escalates marital unhappiness.

In other words, it’s one thing to feel that your anger is inexpressible, but it’s another thing to feel that your partner is out of line just because they are angry.

The passive-aggressive husband defends against spousal anger with deflecting, denying, and dismissive patterns that only tend to provoke and escalate. To the passive-aggressive husband, his spouses’ anger is a profound comment on his unworthiness.

His own anger is stuffed down, eventually spewing out in a defensive tirade against the singular unfairness of it all. He must, at any cost, prevail in the face of this unholy onslaught of spousal rage. So how does his protest made known?

Well, as indirectly as possible of course.

Research on the Passive-Aggressive Husband

Dysfunctional patterns of anger in families-of-origin are the acknowledged well-springs of passive-aggression.

A series of studies by Davies, Hentges et al. were conducted over the last few years. It suggested that children who grew up in homes characterized by ongoing unresolved hostility eventually become adults who are relationally insecure, and tend to deflect responsibility for their own issues. These children also grow into adults who tend to be anxious, socially isolated and depressed. Anger is never confronted, understood, or resolved. It is instead, often seen as a harbinger of relational doom.

One of the reasons why passive-aggressive husbands have become mind-blinded to their maladaptive relationship with anger is that they have conditioned themselves to ignore their own anger, as well as misunderstand the anger of their partners.

How to be a Less Passive-Aggressive Husband

  1. Accept that your wife is angry. But it’s not a harbinger of doom. It’s a useful tool to improve your connection. 
  2. Increase your understanding of anger as an emotion.  Be curious about being furious. Notice what comes up for you when your spouse is angry…or when you are. Be mindful. Breathe. Notice.
  3. Increase your tolerance for anger. Watch how you tend to stuff it down in yourself, and particularly, the story you tell yourself about what it means if your spouse is angry with you. Listen. Lean in. Talk about feeling defensive before you deny, deflect, dismiss or defend.
  4. Ask Questions. Breathe. Then ask more questions. You will be amazed by how mind-blinded you are around your spouses’ anger. Learn not to fear anger.
  5. As a passive-aggressive husband, you learned that expressing anger is wrong…so the hidden belief is that your spouse is wrong for expressing anger. And if you come from a Scream in the Closet family where one of your parents held the monopoly on anger and terrorized the family home, recognize the ghosts of these terrors that come up for you when your spouse is angry. Notice. Breathe. Be here now. It’s not the same…honest it isn’t.

passive aggressive husband

Don’t be a Perry Mason-Style Passive-Aggressive Husband 

Remember Raymond Burr’s portrayal of Perry Mason? Perry was never content to get his client off…he had to be a brilliant purveyor of justice by finding the real culprit as well.

At my worst, I’m a Perry Mason style passive-aggressive husband. When we fight, I often seek to prevail over Dr.K by acting superior and playing the victim to the hilt.

It never works, but for a few fleeting moments, I calm the ghosts in my family of origin by acting smug, superior, and oh so reasonable. But I know it’s only about having the upper hand.

I’m not content to be innocent… others must confess their guilt.

The main thing about being a passive-aggressive husband is that it drives our partner’s crazy. And it’s a losing strategy. I’m working on mine, and I encourage you to work on yours.

 

.

About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.

Leave a Comment: