Identify Passive Aggressive Abuse and End It With These Expert Tips

Man sleeping in bed with an unhappy woman sitting on the floor next to him

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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 a while before the victim is aware of it.

"You may be experiencing abuse but not realize it," explains licensed marriage and family therapist Darlene Lancer, "because [the passive aggressive partner's] strategy of expressing hostility is covert and manipulative, leading to conflict and intimacy problems." These types of covert abuse are subtle or disguised by actions that appear to be normal, even loving and caring.

What Is Passive-Aggression?

Passive-aggression is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings, such as anger or annoyance, instead of openly addressing them.

A passive-aggressive person's feelings may be so repressed that they don'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 open dialogue and emotional honesty can be incredibly difficult for them.

Read on for key signs to identify the behavior and how to confront a passive-aggressive spouse.

Inside the Passive Aggressive's Head

Someone that is passive aggressive never looks internally to examine 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 cause others so much pain. While they may say one thing, they'll do another, and then deny ever saying the first thing. It's difficult for them to communicate their needs and wishes in a clear manner, and they expect their significant other to read their mind and meet their needs.

According to Lancer, there are several common and easy-to-recognize 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 Wetzler, Ph.D., author of Living with the Passive Aggressive Man, passive-aggressive men are unsure of their autonomy and afraid of being alone. They rail against their dependency 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." With that, it would be difficult to create an enduring, intimate connection. 
  • 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.  

The only hope for change in the way a passive aggressive deals with relationship issues is if they are able to acknowledge their shortcomings and contributions to the relationship problems. Facing childhood wounds and 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.

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 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. "Their behavior is designed to avoid responsibility for themselves and family, and sometimes they depend unfairly on their partner for support," says Lancer.

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. If you are in a relationship with someone you think is an abuser, you can find resources available at the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Confronting the Passive Aggressive

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 them in a frank way about how their behavior affects you. If nothing else, you can get a few things off your chest. "This takes practice and requires being assertive," advises Lancer. "Be prepared to set boundaries with consequences."

Don’t blame or judge your partner, but describe the behavior you don’t like, how it affects you and the relationship, and what you want.

Below are eight 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. "Don’t blame or judge your partner, but describe the behavior you don’t like, how it affects you and the relationship, and what you want," recommends Lancer.
  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 relationship 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. 

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