Identify Passive Aggressive Abuse and End It With These Tips

Updated 03/12/19
irinamunteanu/Getty Images

What do passive aggressive behavior and domestic abuse have in common? Physical and verbal abuse are easy to identify, but psychological and emotional abuse may lurk for awhile before the victim realizes it. These types of covert abuse are subtle or disguised by actions that appear to be normal, even loving and caring. In certain circumstances, passive aggression could be considered covert abuse; if you are in a relationship with someone you think is an abuser, you can find resources available at the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

According to Dr. Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, "Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them." Their feelings may be so repressed that the person doesn't realize they are angry or feeling resentment. When confronted with their behavior, they may appear surprised or disappointed that anyone would think that about them, as if they are misunderstood or held to unreasonable standards. They have a real desire to connect with others emotionally, but their fear of such a connection causes them to engage in self-destructive habits. 

Common Passive Aggressive Behaviors

  • Ambiguity/Lies: Take the proverb: "Actions speak louder than words." A passive aggressive person is known for being deceptive in their word. The best way to judge how they feel about an issue is to watch their actions.
  • Blaming/Victimization: They have difficulty taking responsibility for their actions and will find many excuses to avoid doing so. This includes when they shirk deadlines and ignore agreed-upon itineraries and timelines. Victimization is a related symptom of passive aggression; since nothing is their fault, they are always the victim. 
  • Lack of Anger: Passive aggression is marked by misplaced anger. The passive aggressive person may have been taught, as a child, that anger is unacceptable. They may appear indecisive or "down for whatever"; however, by not expressing their personal ideas and preferences, a passive aggressive person may build resentment for others through their own repression. 
  • Fear of Dependency/Intimacy: According to Scott Wetlzer, author of Living With The Passive Aggressive Man, "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 battle grounds, where he can only claim victory if he denies his need for your support." With that, it would be difficult to create an enduring, intimate connection with them. 
  • Obstructionism/Power Grab: Passive aggressive behavior shifts power in a relationship to make the perpetrator feel bigger and more entitled to affection or other gestures, while the victim will feel undeserving of their partner's love. Similar to their willful deception mentioned above, a passive aggressive person is also prone to emotional manipulation.  

Below are 8 constructive ways to confront someone with passive aggressive behavior.

  1. Focus on one issue at a time. Don't bring up everything at once. You may have a laundry list of grievances but it won't be very helpful to go through everything in one sitting. Remember, they avoid conflict so take it one grievance at a time to help them feel comfortable. 
  2. Have a time limit. Confrontation should not stretch on indefinitely.
  3. Make sure you have privacy. A public display will only exacerbate both sides of the issue. Shaming someone never gets positive results. 
  4. Don't attack their character. You may feel angry and want to strike out but, doing so will only cause the passive aggressive to withdraw and refuse to engage in communication. 
  5. Focus on your feelings. Make your feelings the subject of the conversation and not their bad behaviors. Use "I" statements, not "you" statements. It will lead to more productive communication if you make the conversation about the marriage and how you are feeling. 
  6. Stay on topic. Someone who avoids conflict may also be inclined to deflect or go on tangents during the conversation. You do not have to defend yourself for wanting to discuss your feelings, and doing so would derail the conversation. 
  7. Respect their space. If they need to retreat from the conversation allow them to do it with dignity. Tell them you understand their need to leave the conversation but, before they do you'd like to agree on another date and time to continue discussing the topic. 
  8. Remind them that you care. Be sure they understand that you care about what happens to them, that you love them and that you are not trying to control them. You are only trying to get to the bottom of your disagreements and make the relationship better. Nothing is more important than helping the passive aggressive to feel safe in engaging in what they will view as a conflict. 

The Passive Aggressive Person and You

A passive aggressive person attracts and is attracted to co-dependents, or anyone who is quick to make excuses for other people's bad behaviors. This may not be intentional, and rather is a natural mesh of personalities—psychological abuse is never the fault of the victim. 

The most important factor in saving a relationship is both parties willingness to change. A person who expresses passive aggression likely has deeper issues that a therapist or counselor would help them to work through. Victims of such behavior may also choose to seek therapy to heal from the wounds of the relationship. 

The passive aggressive will say one thing, do another, and then deny ever saying the first thing. They don't communicate their needs and wishes in a clear manner, expecting their spouse to read their mind and meet their needs. After all, if their spouse truly loved them he/she would just naturally know what they needed or wanted. The passive aggressive withholds information about how he/she feels, their ego is fragile and can't take the slightest criticism so why let you know what they are thinking or feeling? God forbid they disclose that information and you criticize them.

Confronting the Passive Aggressive

Beware, if you confront the passive aggressive they will most likely sulk, give you the silent treatment or completely walk away leaving you standing there to deal with the problem alone.

There are two reasons for confronting the passive aggressive. One, if done correctly you may be able to help them gain insight into the negative consequences of their behaviors. Two, even if that doesn't happen, it will at least give you the opportunity to talk to him/her in a frank way about how his/her behavior affects you. If nothing else you can get a few things "off your chest."

Below are 8 constructive ways to confront someone with passive aggressive behavior.

1. Make your feelings the subject of the conversation and not their bad behaviors. Use "I" statements and not "you" statements. More than likely you will get a more productive response from the passive aggressive spouse if you make the communication about the marriage and how you are feeling. 

2. Don't attack their character. You may feel angry and want to strike out but, doing so will only cause the passive aggressive to withdraw and refuse to engage in communication. 

3. Make sure you have privacy. This is only common sense. Do not call out your passive aggressive spouse in front of others. Shaming someone never gets positive results. 

4. Confront them about one behavior at a time, don't bring up everything at once. You may have a laundry list of grievances but that doesn't mean you have to communicate the entire list in one sitting. Remember, the passive aggressive fears conflict so, take it one grievance at a time to help them feel comfortable. 

5. If they need to retreat from the conversation allow them to do it with dignity. Tell them you understand their need to leave the conversation but, before they do you'd like to agree on another date and time to continue discussing the topic. 

6. Have a time limit, confrontation should not stretch on indefinitely.

7. If they try to turn the table on you, do not defend your need to have an adult conversation about your feelings. Having dealt with the passive aggressive you know that one of their main tactics is to try and turn the tables. Be on the lookout for that to happen and instead of becoming defensive insist that they stay on topic. 

8. Be sure they understand that you care about what happens to them, that you love them and that you are not trying to control them. You are only trying to get to the bottom of your disagreements and make the relationship better. Nothing is more important than helping the passive aggressive to feel safe in engaging in what they will view as a conflict. 

Inside the Passive Aggressive's Head

The passive aggressive has a real desire to connect with you emotionally but their fear of such a connection causes them to be obstructive and engage in self-destructive habits. They will be covert in their actions and it will only move them further from their desired relationship with you.

The passive aggressive never looks internally and examines their role in a relationship problem. They have to externalize it and blame others for having shortcomings. To accept that they have flaws would be tantamount to emotional self-destruction. They live in denial of their self-destructive behaviors, the consequences of those behaviors and the choices they make that causes others so much pain.

The passive aggressive objectifies the object of their desire. You are to be used as a means to an end. Your only value is to feed the passive aggressive's emotional needs. You are not seen as a person with feelings and needs but as an extension of them. They care for you the way they care for a favorite chair. You are there for their comfort and pleasure and are of use as long as you fill their needs.

The passive aggressive wants the attention and attachment that comes with loving someone but fear losing their independence and sense of self to their spouse. They want love and attention but avoid it out of fear of it destroying them. You have to be kept at arm's length and if there is an emotional attachment it is tenuous at best.

The passive aggressive has a real desire to connect with you emotionally but their fear of such a connection causes them to be obstructive and engage in self-destructive habits. They will be covert in their actions and it will only move them further from their desired relationship with you.

The only hope for change in the way they deal with relationship issues is if they are able to acknowledge their shortcomings and contributions to the marital problems. Facing childhood wounds, looking internally instead of externally to find the cause of problems in their life will help them form deeper emotional attachments with a higher sense of emotional safety.

Related Content:

Divorcing the Passive Aggressive Spouse

Related Stories