And how to break the cycle if you are that spouse
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.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.