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Resolving Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Relationships

Therapists talk a lot about the importance of open communication to cultivate and maintain a healthy relationship. One of the most common negative communication styles that can constrain a relationship is passive-aggression. Passive-aggression is the indirect expression of negative feelings. It is often a coping mechanism for feeling powerless or ashamed, and it is rarely a conscious choice to behave negatively.

Passive-aggressive behavior includes:

  • Verbal hostility
  • Hostile humor
  • Relational neglect
  • Manipulation via lies, backstabbing, or guilt-baiting
  • Playing the victim

Because the expression of negative feeling is indirect, it puts the passive-aggressor’s partner in an unfair position to address any hurt or wrongdoing. The receiving partner often feels frustrated or angry while the passive-aggressive partner continues to feel hurt or neglected because his or her root issue is not being addressed. This dynamic can erode the intimacy in a relationship and perpetuate emotional distance that can grow insurmountable if the passive-aggressive behavior continues unchecked.

Although passive-aggression can be significantly damaging to a relationship, it is important to empathize with the passive-aggressive partner. Rarely is this behavior a conscious choice, and it often stems from a fear of direct communication. This fear may be due to internal circumstances, such as low self-esteem or a fear of abandonment, or external factors, including a history of betrayal or lack of empathy in the relationship. Awareness of these influences is essential in partners working together to overcome passive-aggressive relationship behavior.

If you find yourself repeatedly falling into a cycle of passive-aggressive behavior with your partner, it is common to feel like this pattern is inevitable. However, it is possible to eradicate unhealthy communication behavior and replace it with more adaptive ways of relating. Here is a sample of the skills you and your partner can learn to be in control and foster direct communication:

  1. Use mindfulness to increase your awareness of the warning signs.
    Mindfulness strategies are all about staying present and increasing self-understanding. Practicing mindfulness will help both partners become more conscious of automatic communication styles so they can become more aware of the feelings and sensations that trigger passive-aggressive behavior. Take note of when you feel that your boundaries are being crossed or when you start feeling negative emotions. Reveal these thoughts to your partner so you can work together to avoid them in the future or correct any false assumptions.
  2. Do not engage with passive-aggression.
    When you become aware of passive-aggressive behavior entering the conversation, do your best to avoid engaging in further conflict. Make an agreement with your partner that when passive-aggressive behavior is perceived, the aware partner has a right to call a temporary halt to the conversation until both partners feel it is safe to continue. This will reduce the frequency of damaging conflict.
  3. Be direct in your communication.
    The antithesis of passive-aggressive communication is direct communication, and openness is pivotal to allowing painful emotions to be addressed and reducing resentment. Tell your partner how you feel using “I” statements, and ask questions for clarification that promote empathy and understanding.
  4. Take accountability for your behavior to promote relationship repair.
    Targeting passive-aggressive behavior is not limited to focusing on reducing the frequency of the behavior but also includes increasing practices that lessen the damage such behavior causes to your relationship. Coming together following conflict should be a priority.

Given that you and your partner are both committed to improving your communication, it is important to realize that progress will wax and wane. Passive-aggression will still surface occasionally. Do not try to justify the presence of passive-aggressive behavior when it occurs, and be open to your partner’s feedback. Take ownership of your behavior and express a commitment to continue working on the relationship.

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