Passive-Aggressive Behavior and Marital Conflict

There are few couple dynamics as frustrating and as misunderstood as passive-aggressive behavior. Passive aggressive men can be incredibly infuriating, and some of the “help” you will find online for living with a passive aggressive partner is a wee bit over the top.  They will warn you that it is hopeless; “he will never change.” The best thing you can do short of leaving the relationship is to become an expert mind reader and set your expectations exceedingly low.

These frustrated women have a point. They describe their partner’s passive-aggressive behavior as notoriously persistent and robust. They’re right. If the only way they attempt to deal with it is by nagging and criticizing, it can be very difficult to change.

Women often display intense anger and sputtering rage toward their passive aggressive partners. And this hot anger is fanned by the complicated nature of the passive-aggressive syndrome. Passive aggressive behavior can show up in an ostensibly kind and agreeable personality. Passive aggressive behavior tends to avoid direct conflict, and speech is often camouflaged as cooperative and conciliatory. “Just tell you what you want,” they say… “and I promise that I will do it.” That is the infuriating part. He never argues, he always says the right thing… and he hardly ever follows through.

Wives describe how frustrated they feel when their expectations are not met. The passive aggressive man fawns and placates, while his spouse becomes increasingly agitated and enraged. “Why does he say one thing and do another? How on earth did he ever get this way?”

passive-aggressive behavior

 Passive-Aggressive Behavior Examples:

  • Agrees with What You Want.. but Later Sulks and is Emotionally Withholding. Passive aggressive men will go along with just about anything you want them to do.  At first, you think that you’re both collaborating on a decision. Except you discover later that he really didn’t agree at all, because he becomes sullen and withdrawn.
  • Avoids Unpleasantness at all Cost:  The passive aggressive man will say anything to avoid a disagreement with you.  If he doesn’t share your point of view, you will literally be the last to know. He avoids showing his hand. Eventually, you realize that you can’t trust anything he says because he never reveals his own thoughts and wishes.
  • He’s like the character in the 50’s song “Charlie Brown.”  The mating call of the passive aggressive man is “why’s everybody always picking on me?” He truly believes that he is adrift on the boundless ocean of your unreasonable expectations. He will be late coming home but seems surprised when you are upset. It was his co-workers fault for dragging him into a last minute meeting. What could he do? Wives might suspect malicious intent because he didn’t call while on the way home. A popular online myth about this type of situation is that he is somehow sadistic, and “enjoys” making you wait for him. That is probably not exactly true. It is more likely that he so deeply fears an unpleasant conversation, that he would rather postpone the argument until he gets home. When you rage at him, he will complain that trying to please both you and his boss puts an impossible demand on him.
  • “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood,” is another passive-aggressive anthem. when he feels the pressure of conflicting demands, relief comes with the belief that he can resolve his dilemma in any way that seems comfortable. And if you don’t agree… well… tough. The passive aggressive man is not alternately passive and aggressive.. he is simultaneously both passive and aggressive. His emotional comfort trumps everything and everyone…including you.
  • His Absent-mindedness is Maddening. Some passive-aggressive men “forget” important dates like wedding anniversaries and birthdays or a planned weekend get-away.  But it also works the other way around as well. If he wants you to attend a business dinner with his boss, he might get around to telling you about it the day before. It’s hard for wives not to create a narrative of aggression around this “forgetfulness.” But a real fear of conflict over a mixed agenda could be the real culprit.
  • Remember that at the End of the Day, the Passive Aggressive Husband is Not Only Afraid of Conflict, They’re Also Are Becoming Increasingly Afraid of You.  He feels hopeless and helpless when he is on your bad side. Your anger and frustration are feeding an increasingly ambivalent stance in your passive aggressive partner. It’s easy to miss the fact that the passive aggressive man is often marinated in fear, and seeks to avoid or delay any interactions that might introduce conflict. This over-arching fear is a critically overlooked feature of the passive aggressive husband.

“The passive-aggressive man is unsure of his autonomy and afraid of being alone, he fights his dependency needs, usually by trying to control you. He wants you to think he doesn’t depend on you, but he binds himself closer than he cares to admit. Relationships can become battlegrounds, where he can only claim victory if he denies his need for your support.” Scott Wentzler

How did My Partner Acquire a Passive-Aggressive Personality?

Our families of origin taught us how to be intimate partners. As deeply frustrating as a passive aggressive husband may be to live with, they came by this way honestly. It goes back, as so many marital problems do, to how his personality was shaped by his family of origin.

passive-aggressive behavior

  • Passive-aggressive behavior is a coping strategy often found when one parent was exceptionally controlling and domineering. Often this was his father. As a young boy, your passive aggressive husband was subjected to an endless barrage of harsh criticism and judgment. As a result, he was conditioned to become unusually sensitive to criticism, and he learned that his thoughts and wishes were irrelevant.  A prickly sensitivity developed, which is one of the hallmarks of passive-aggressive behavior.
  • Passive-aggressive behavior is also reinforced by a heavy dose of painful and anguished life experience. This fosters a skeptical and pessimistic attitude that he will never have his needs met by intimate others. Passive aggressive men tend to have very inhibited emotional lives and have a self-protective stance towards the world. He knows he won’t get what he wants from intimate others…..so why bother to ask for it in the first place? Ask a passive aggressive partner what they want, and they habitually respond by telling you in great detail what they don’t want.
  • Passive-aggressive behavior means you’re allergic to showing up and authentically asking for what would please you. Passive-aggression is a posture not only towards an intimate partner… it’s a stance toward life itself. Passive aggressive men are so tightly constricted by their own diminished expectations, that they sometimes find it hard to initiate any sort of pleasurable activity. “What you want to do is just fine, dear.” Their wives can become incredibly lonely  because their husbands are forever just “going along to get along”. They seem completely incapable of showing up authentically with their own thoughts and feelings.

Changing Passive Aggressive-Behavior

The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy by Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Pete Pearson is one of the few couples therapy models that actually has some sound and specific advice for couples trapped in the emotional quicksand of passive-aggressive behavior. With effort, passive-aggressive behavior can be changed around. But it is a team effort. You both can change how you respond to each other. It will take some work, but Bader and Pearson’s suggestions are sensible and specific:

When Your Partner is Passive Aggressive

  • Passive aggressive behavior is so loathsome to women it’s reasonable to assume that men will defend themselves against the blaming label.
  • Start by making it OK.
  • “You’re passive-aggressive. I don’t like it… but so what? It’s not a death sentence. I’m not perfect either. We can deal with breaking this pattern together.”
  • Tell your partner that you noticed that he has a hard time speaking up for himself. Tell him you’d like him to think more about what he does want, and less about what he doesn’t. Tell him that you are not walking this earth with the single-minded intent of denying him the simple joys of his manly pursuits.
  • Hey, if you ask him to do something, and he does it… praise him specifically for what he did right. You probably have no idea how little praise he received growing up. It may sound inconsequential to you, especially if you’re furious with him. But for a man who has been starved for praise during much of his early life, his surprise at being praised by you can be a powerful emotional motivator for change.
  • Please stop harshly criticizing and nagging. Bader and Pearson remind us that passive aggressive men are acutely sensitive to nagging. It doesn’t work. It never has. It never will.

If You’re the One with the Passive-Aggressive Behavior

  • Pay attention to little ways you can express appreciation daily to your partner. Practice being thoughtful every day. How can you show her that you care? How can you show her that she is loved and valued? Show some initiative.. show a capacity to surprise and perhaps even occasionally delight!
  • You’re going to have to learn how to calm yourself down when she is being critical. This is where science-based couples therapy can help. Lean into her. Listen carefully to what she is asking for. Be curious. Don’t make excuses or become defensive. Only commit to what you are absolutely willing and able to do… but please be willing to do something to address her concern. It’s your marriage that’s on the line. Do you want to be so reliably uncooperative that you end up living alone? I don’t think so.
  • Right now you are habitually over-promising and under-delivering. You’ve lost a great deal of her trust as a result. If you want to stay married, Dr. Pearson says, you might want to reverse that. Start under-promising, and over-delivering. Show her that you are trying hard to “mean what you say.. and say what you mean.
  • Remember to Wait for 5 to 10 seconds before you make a commitment. Reflect on the promise you are making to yourself to keep your promises to your partner. If you say you will clean the garage on Saturday, then clean the garage on Saturday…and maybe weed-wack the cracks in the driveway as well. Passive aggressive behavior can be turned around. But it will take patience and sincere effort from both of you. Why not Start today?

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.

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