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
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.
Scream in the Closet Families, and Silent Scream in the Closet Families both teach that anger is totally unacceptable. 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.
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.
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.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.