Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Expressing negative feelings in an unassertive, passive way.

When defense is an attack

When resentment and contempt lurk beneath the surface of a dysfunctional relationship, Passive-Aggressive behavior is like a residue which rises to the top. It is a form of behavior where anger is not expressed openly, rather, it emerges in sometimes subtle ways which avoid direct confrontation.

It is common for someone  who feels they are in a position of relative disempowerment to express their anger at the more powerful person through Passive-Aggressive behavior. They may feel inferior, or afraid of the person they are angry with, who may also be an authority figure such as a parent, older sibling, employer or teacher. Or, the person may be a peer such as a spouse, partner, sibling or friend who dominates or assumes the lead position in the relationship.

Passive-aggressive behavior is a common feature of relationships between people with Personality Disorders and Nons. People with Personality Disorders often feel a great deal of pain over their own situation. Because of the way their emotions can overwhelm their rational thinking, they are prone to destructive behaviors, emotional outbursts, making poor choices and having feelings of self-loathing, powerlessness and discontent.

Faced with this, it is common for them to look for a person who is willing to share the burden, help clean up the mess and help them feel better about themselves. Family members, spouses, partners and friends are prime candidates for this role - a role which they sometimes accept willingly; hoping to make a positive difference in their loved one’s life.

However, the Non may hold over-optimistic expectations about the degree to which they can ‘help them change’. For the person with the Personality Disorder, the Non’s inevitable failure to solve all the problems and fill all the voids can create feelings of disappointment, disillusionment and even resentment . Filled with anger towards those who have disappointed them, yet consumed by fear that they will be abandoned by them , the Personality Disordered person may develop a pattern of Passive-Aggressive behavior towards the Non.

On their part, Nons are often confused about the erratic state of mind of the Personality Disordered individuals in their lives. They may respond to poor treatment with feelings of anger and hurt while at the same time they may become afraid of future outbursts. The Non may be fatigued from taking the “high ground” over contentious issues while also managing their feelings of anger towards a Personality Disordered person who appears to be taking the “low road” or taking advantage of them. Nons may themselves develop a pattern of Passive-Aggressive behavior as a way of registering their disapproval while not provoking further conflict.

What it Looks Like

  • Withdrawal - of material support, contribution to shared goals, Re-prioritizing alternate activities and goals, “go-slow’s”, procrastination or targeted incompetence.
  • Silent Treatment - inappropriate “one-word” answers, inattention, making yourself generally “unavailable”.
  • Off-line Criticism - propagating gossip or criticism to a third party in an attempt to negatively influence the third party’s opinion of a person.
  • Sarcasm, Critical and “Off-Color” Jokes - Humor which targets a specific individual is a form of Passive-Aggressive communication.
  • Indirect Violence - shows-of-strength such as destruction of property, slamming doors, cruelty to animals in the sight of another is passive-aggressive.

The Bottom Line

Passive-Aggressive behaviors and communication styles are rarely effective in getting people what they want, and are more likely to add fuel to the fires already burning. An assertive approach to managing conflict is far more likely to get both parties in a relationship what they want. Where there are episodes of abuse involved, assertiveness can also involve setting firm, healthy and appropriate boundaries which protect the Non from further abuse. 

What NOT To Do:

  • Don't respond with a passive-aggressive approach of your own.
  • Don't feel responsible for another person's passive aggressive words or actions.

What TO Do:

  • Speak the truth, clearly, accurately and simply, then leave the conversation if that is not enough.
  • Do something healthy and productive for yourself.