What to do about a passive aggressive spouse

And how to break the cycle if you are that spouse

This kid didn't want to dress up like a frog. That's why he just left a juicy package in his diaper. Photo by massdistraction.

We all like to blame other people for being passive aggressive. I know I do. Me? Passive aggressive? Nah. That’s something other people do.

It’s like that.

Still, it’s my belief that we all practice this ineffective communication strategy from time to time.

Even I have done it. There. I copped to it.

Technically, you are behaving in a passive-aggressive manner whenever you agree to do something that you don’t really want to do—so you passively resist what you just agreed to do.

For instance, a passive aggressive spouse who has been hen pecked into washing the dishes will do a crappy job washing them.

A spouse who has agreed to trim the bushes in the yard will continually put off the job. “I said I would do it!” such a spouse will say, but saying it and doing it don’t ever seem to match up. Or such a spouse might continually blame his bad memory. “I’m sorry. I just keep forgetting to do it!” he might say.

A spouse will agree to have dinner with the in-laws only to sigh, roll her eyes and behave negatively the whole time.

A spouse will say she’s not mad that you didn’t call when you were late, but then she’ll dock you later for the misdeed when you want to get frisky.

You get the idea.

Procrastination, inefficiency, slipshod work, and negativity are all types of passive aggressiveness.

It’s important to be able to see this behavior in yourself before you can address it in your spouse. Few people – communication experts and therapists aside—are such good communicators that they never act passive aggressively at one time or another. If you can be honest with yourself and get at the reasons you do it, it will be easier to confront such behavior in someone else.

How to Break Yourself Out of the Cycle

  • Remind yourself that passive aggressive behavior rarely, if ever, gets you what you want. If anything, it usually hurts you more than the person you are directing the behavior toward. If you don’t believe me, keep track of the end result whenever you act this way. Usually it just annoys people and drives them away from you.
  • Remind yourself that confrontation might seem scary, but it’s a lot easier than the subversive tactics you’ve been using. More important, it’s a lot more likely to get you what you want.
  • See yourself as a work in progress. Whenever you notice yourself feeling resentful, examine the emotion and think about what is going unsaid. Then be assertive and ask for what you need rather than pretend that nothing is wrong.

How to Break Someone Else Out of the Cycle

  • Don’t reward passive-aggressive behavior. You might be tempted to continually ask the person, “What’s wrong?” Whenever you do that, you are rewarding the ineffective communication strategy. Instead, simply say, “It seems like something might be wrong. If you want to talk about it, I’m here.” Then shut up and don’t bring it up again.
  • Don’t fix your spouse’s work. If your spouse did a poor job on purpose, live with it. Eat off the scummy dishes. Allow everyone in the house to walk around in wrinkled clothes. This won’t be easy, but it’s very important not to reward your spouse by doing the job yourself.
  • During a good moment (ie when you are not fighting and when you don’t think your spouse is already ticked off about something), mention that you’ve noticed a trend of your spouse agreeing to do certain things that he or she doesn’t seem to want to do. Explain that you would much rather get a firm “no” from your spouse than the resulting behavior. Ask your spouse, “Are you scared to confront me? I will love you no matter what. You know that, right?” Ask open-ended questions and try to truly understand what is driving your spouse to act this way.

Have you successfully addressed passive-aggressive behavior in yourself or someone else? Share your advice here so others can learn from your success.

28 comments… add one

  • Leeanne Garnier August 10, 2010, 1:03 pm

    Useful info, many thanks to the writer. It is puzzling to me now, but in general, the usefulness and importance is overwhelming. Very much thanks again and good luck!

    Reply
  • aguyreader August 10, 2010, 1:32 pm

    I am considering making artificial written contracts for when my spouse agrees to do something. She tends to put it off than says he never agreed. I will probably get in trouble for this, but i gotta try something.

    Reply
  • Misty August 10, 2010, 1:33 pm

    I think women are taught somewhat to be passive-aggressive. We participate in this learned behavior. Example: women “hint” at what they want instead of just coming out and saying it. They then get angry when their husbands do not “pick up on” what they wanted, and they then silently fume and/or pout and cry. Why not just SAY what you want so that there are no misunderstandings? Because he should just know/pay attention! I have been very guilty of this and have tried hard to see it for what it is and not repeat that behavior.

    That being said, the part Alisa said about agreeing to do something because it seems to be easier than confrontation is right on. My husband does this, and especially with his drinking. He has never accepted that he has a problem and has started a disturbing trend of just not telling me, sneaking drinks, lying about drinks, etc. I tell him that it’s better to just tell me “I’m not coming home yet and I’ll have as many drinks as I want to” than to lie, sneak around, or promise to work on it when he actually has no intention of doing so. If he wants to stay out with his friends or golf for the fourth time this week, it’s the same thing. Not answering calls or texts is easier to him, for some reason, then just telling me what he’s doing. Later, the confrontation happens anyway, and it’s much worse than it would’ve been if he would have just told me what he was going to do. It’s not as if I would try to control him anyway, as it is absolutely pointless to try controlling another person.

    So far my plea for openness and honesty has not worked. I remind myself everyday that all I can do is NOT practice this negative behavior and be open and honest myself.
    Misty´s last blog post ..Seeing your world through new eyes

    Reply
    • Amie October 25, 2011, 11:05 am

      coming from someone who is accused of passive aggressive behavior when really my behavior is aggressive, I can say that sometimes people dont answer their texts right away because they want time to cool off from stress ans drama with someone else before dealing with their loved ones.

      I did this, when i was stressed about work, about job hunting, about my family calling and texting nasty messages. I didnt answer my ex-boyfriends texts or calls right away because I didnt want to carry my anger and frustration from the other problems and nasty people into my attitude when dealing with him. so I would avoid him for a while until I had cooled off enough I didnt attack him.

      but he assumed i was simply avoiding him or lying to him. and being passive aggressive.

      so the lesson is, if someone seems to be avoiding you, maybe they are in a bad mood or very stressed out and they are trying to be loving and cool off so they dont take it out on you. give them a bit of space.
      Amie´s last blog post ..I Miss Everything About You J

      Reply
  • Drummer Guy August 10, 2010, 2:00 pm

    Great post Alisa. It made me look inward a little. I don’t know if I do this behavior but I may be. I do notice my forgetfulness has gotten MUCH worse over the last year or so. May just be due to added stress or may be passive aggressive. I will definatly look into it further.

    Misty thank for saying how important it is to just ask for what we want or want our spouse to do. My beloved learned some time ago that we really can’t read minds & then are puzzled by why our spouse is so upset for something we didn’t do. It’s humorous to look back on now. You know the old “well if I have to ask” or “you should have known” Well duh… not unless you tell me…lol
    I had to learn the same. :-)
    Guess we are all guilty of that one.

    Keep Rockin Alisa
    Ron :-)

    Reply
  • Drummer Guy August 10, 2010, 2:01 pm

    Opps forgot to check the box :-)

    Reply
  • Joanne & Ray August 10, 2010, 2:19 pm

    Alisa- What a timely subject. at our last counseling session when she asked my husband if he had done any of the activities he agreed to and he just looked guilty she did peg it as passive aggressive. I have said more than once that while I am the type A personality in our relationship and alot of people think Ray is hen pecked I have always maintained that Ray will only do what Ray wants to do. He may yes me to death but then turn around and do or not do whatever he wants anyway.
    The worst thing though in all honesty is if he does agree to go along with me on something and then bitches and complains the whole time. I would much rather he just said he wasn’t interested. I am an independent person by nature and if I really want to go somewhere or do something I always ask if he is interested but if he isn’t I will still go by myself unless of course he has some objection. I would love to share more things with Ray but he is a home body and I am a able to go/do./be.

    Reply
  • Frugal Kiwi August 10, 2010, 2:42 pm

    There is definitely truth in saying that women are trained to be less direct than men. We are more likely to say, “Wow honey, it sure is a warm day” than “Let’s stop walking and get a drink I’m hot and thirsty”. However we are trained though, we can still learn. I know I stopped hinting and starting asking outright for things years ago. But hinting and passive-aggressive aren’t the same thing.
    Frugal Kiwi´s last blog post ..Blogoversary Week- Favorite DIY

    Reply
  • Misty August 10, 2010, 3:27 pm

    Yes, Kiwi, I agree that hinting and passive-aggressive are not the same thing. The passive-aggressive part is where you sulk and cry and hold grudges…when you should’ve just said what you wanted. We try to get men to change this part of themselves and just “know” what we want when that’s simply not in the anatomy of most men. Knowing they can’t tell what we want but dropping hints anyway and then balking when it doesn’t work out is passive-aggressive.
    Misty´s last blog post ..Seeing your world through new eyes

    Reply
  • Alexandra August 10, 2010, 4:10 pm

    I find my spouse often needs PERMISSION to refuse to do something. Say, I make a request. I know he doesn’t want to do whatever it is but nods his head as if he is agreeing to do it. Experience has shown whatever it is does not get done. So now, whenever this happens, I remind him, “You don’t have to do this. You can say no.” I find that helps ….

    Reply
  • Julie Roads August 10, 2010, 4:22 pm

    Omg – your caption for the picture. PERFECT.

    Reply
  • Sheryl August 10, 2010, 7:21 pm

    This just makes me crazy. But my DH is guilty of it at times and I guess I am, too. When I think about it, it’s so much easier to be honest. You get it out without any future recriminations…

    Reply
  • Robert Keteyian August 10, 2010, 7:30 pm

    Your consistent advice to take stock with yourself first, before looking at the other person’s behavior is so important. Most of the time that is humbling, and frees you up to handle the difficult behavior better.

    I really had to work hard at being direct acknowledging those things I didn’t want to do–speaking strongly about it…And saying I’ll do it because I know it’s the right thing to do. Somehow that freed me from being resentful. Sometimes it sounds a little crazy, but it works for me. I’ll say I hate doing such and such. My wife will say, then don’t do it. And I’ll say, No I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. I feel much better for having voiced all of this and don’t seem to carry resentment after doing whatever I don’t like doing.

    Reply
  • Newlywed & Unemployed August 10, 2010, 8:33 pm

    Excellent points. I had to re-train myself after I left my first husband. We had gotten used to some horrible habits that were never going to get me anywhere happy in the rest of my life. Thankfully, my new husband is a very direct person and also gentle about how hard it can be for me to behave assertively.

    On the flip side of the coin, his wish to please me and see me happy is so great that sometimes, he agrees to things he really doesn’t want to do. Like Alexandra, I’ve learned to say “No is an ok answer” (and mean it) and that’s become a bit of a motto in our household.

    Now I’m dealing with a passive aggressive mother in law.. I have far less influence there. Our main strategy there is to take her at face value and if she comes back later with hurts and pouts, we remind her of what she Said and assure her we are not mind readers.
    Newlywed & Unemployed´s last blog post ..Dear Kate- Ask the Readers

    Reply
  • Kathy August 10, 2010, 9:22 pm

    I guess my husband was displaying passive-aggressive behavior by asking me to write a list of what needed to be done, and then never doing it. I just figured he was ignoring me.

    What I did, I pointed it out. Me: why do you ask me to write you a list, if you’re still not doing what’s on the list? Him: I forgot about the list. Me: Would you like me to staple it to your forehead??? Or, then how is anything going to get done without me nagging you????

    Either one usually gets the results I’m looking for – the list completed.

    Also, me threatening to do the list (because the list is “manly work”) – that usually gets my husband off the passive-aggressive stance.

    Also, I’m very direct. If I sense he’s giving me the “brush off”, I call him out on it right away. I guess I’m not a fan of passive-aggressive (or Bull Shit) behavior.

    Reply
  • Bern August 10, 2010, 11:46 pm

    Yes, agree with Misty – I think it’s in-built or a learnt behaviour more prevalent in women than in men. Also agree with Drummer Guy (yet again!) though – we could ALL look at ourselves as I’m sure we’re all guilty of it at sometime. Don’t think I was particularly like this with my former wife, but thinking back this was common behaviour with her towards me. If I was passive-aggressive, I think it was probably more in a work context, which is not a good or productive thing to do either.

    Thanks for the post – something else I can work on!

    Reply
  • Jennifer Margulis August 11, 2010, 4:48 pm

    This is interesting. I often have to do things that I don’t really want to do (usually related to schlepping kids places or to parents-stay parties, god how I hate those) and I really don’t want to be passive aggressive about it. So sometimes I will just say straight up: “I will drive you to Ruby’s house but I actually don’t want to. It’s a long way in the car, the A/C is broken, and I’d rather be doing the dishes. So I am probably going to be grumpy about driving you. If you can live with my bad mood, I can live with getting you there.” Not sure this is a good approach. Isn’t it better NOT to feel reluctant to do something?! But I feel like at least I’m owning my feelings… (okay, that is pretty lame but there you have it…)

    Reply
    • Alisa August 11, 2010, 8:18 pm

      Jennifer–I don’t think that’s being passive aggressive. I think that is being assertive and straight forward. Passive aggressive would be agreeing to do it and then pretending that the car just ran out of gas as you are backing out of the driveway.

      Reply
  • Jennifer Margulis August 11, 2010, 11:52 pm

    Alisa-sounds like my ex-boyfriend! That’s why I didn’t marry him (or anyone like him, thank goodness)!!

    Reply
  • sarah henry August 16, 2010, 12:27 am

    We’re all guilty of it, of course, but you’ve outlined so many good reasons why it’s a totally crap communication strategy. Gotta print & save this one.

    Reply
  • Gayle August 18, 2010, 6:00 pm

    Good advice here… hard not to be passive aggressive and even harder not to reward the passive aggressor. Sigh
    hubbie and I are BOTH guilty of this… so have to fix it
    Gayle´s last blog post ..The Newlywed Game and the Sunday Newspaper

    Reply
  • Fran Marie August 21, 2010, 9:08 pm

    My first husband was the KING of passive-aggressive behavior!

    I could always count on him to be late for anything. I finally just left without him one day and decided I LOVED not having to be stressed and said so! Guess who was always on time after that?

    If your spouse says they will do something and then doesn’t? Hire the MOST expensive person you can to do the job. From then on ask “Honey, can you do such and such by (date) or should I call someone to do it?” Either way you get it done!

    If it looks like he hasn’t moved by halfway to when you need something done call in the expert WITHOUT parading the fact that you are. Just call and get it done.

    Reply
  • AJ September 2, 2010, 11:52 am

    I thought my husband was just being lazy when he would not ever get to the things that need done. I would get all mad and he would get irritated and then refuse to do them at all. FINALLY, we figured out that he was not really refusing to do the things I asked him to… but he is a perfectionist and before he does something – he needs to have it all figured out. He won’t just start a project until he has the perfect fix-it plan worked out. Case in point – Our broken (by a baseball!) window – has been broken for over a year. I say we hire someone to fix it. He says he can do it. Talks about what the best way may be… thinks about it a while – gets frustrated and then forgets about it for a while. Still not fixed. He thinks it’s his “job” to know how to do all these things around the house and has a real problem hiring another man to do something he thinks is his job. Know what I mean?

    I have found that the best way is sometimes for me to not even mention a project to him and just call someone to fix it. He always wants to know why i didn’t just tell him about it and sometimes he gets mad – I say I figured he was too busy. Saves us both a lot of frustration. But now the window is just sitting there waiting to be fixed. I can’t just call someone now because he specifically told me not to.

    So…. I wait. He will get to it eventually.

    Reply
  • Bern September 5, 2010, 6:27 pm

    The difference between being passive aggressive and just lazy or forgetful is that it is passive aggressive when it is deliberately forgotten or not able to do something as a means of control or to make the other person angry or upset (oftentimes to justify a position the passive aggressor has of that person).

    An example – when I was driving around Sydney (Australia) with my former wife I asked her if she could help by reading the map and giving directions. I know this is not a strong point of hers, so even found the page myself, showed her the route, etc, etc to make it easy. She simply ‘played dumb’ and kept stuffing it up, which resulted after a period of time me getting fed up and saying she could drive if she wouldn’t help me. When I got her to take over the driving she could all of a sudden ‘magically’ read the map! Subsequently one of her points a year or so later when she was pulling the plug on the marriage was that ‘we never had a good time together, and when we were in Sydney she knew even before we even went that she’d have a terrible time with me’. So, in her mind she had to create a situation for a fight, so she could justify in her own mind another reason to end the marriage. Now THAT’S passive-aggressive!

    Reply
  • Henway October 31, 2010, 11:01 am

    Hmm.. I wonder if all this passive aggressiveness is just a symptom of a larger problem? Perhaps each person being sick of each other? Because early on in marriages, this negativity usually isn’t an issue – it’s only when they become sick of each other (end of honeymoon phase) that these things arise.
    Henway´s last blog post ..Oxy-Powder Review

    Reply
  • Bern November 1, 2010, 5:01 pm

    Henway – I agree with your comments; it’s often used when the person cannot cope with confrontation or being honest and respectful. If a person wants to justify their thoughts (as in, I don’t like my partner anymore, what to be out of this marriage, etc, etc) then I have to make them the bad guy (or girl), so I’ll do something to get a reaction, and that reaction justifies their perception. My example above on reading the map when we were driving in Sydney is a classic example I believe – my former wife had already decided that she was going to have a terrible time with me prior to even leaving on the trip, so had to do something to cause a fight, which then justified her position of having a terrible time! Crazy and immature I know, but reality. . . . .

    Reply
  • Maria March 30, 2011, 1:46 pm

    This ALL rings a bell for me. ……. Here is a thought, “Why would I make YOU a priority if you only make ME and option?
    MY needs are optional and my husband ALWAYS has a reason that is good to him for not doing something… Usually things that take less than 5 minutes to do to make me FEEL cared for and appreciated…. LIKE the dishes, making sure the car he gives me to drive has gas in it, or take 2 minutes to make a call to let me know how his day touring colleges with our son is going (tours that I booked too).
    STOP ENABLING BAD BEHAVIOR THAT MAKES YOU FEEL LESS THAN YOU ARE!

    Reply
  • terri June 16, 2011, 8:32 am

    It’s to late for me. I don’t live with him anymore, but he gave me an almost impossible time when I tried to divorce him. I am covered by his health insurance so he still has control; and trust me a P.A. husband will try to control you and cause so much emotional distress it almost seems to be a good idea to divorce him and have no health insurance.

    Reply

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