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How Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Wrecks Relationship

By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Passive-aggressive behavior is frustrating. It’s mind baffling. It’s anger provoking. So why do people resort to such relationship-damaging behavior? And why is it so hard to change the pattern?

The pattern begins innocuously with a “Yes” and a “No Problem.”
He says, “Sure, I’ll take care of the task;” then he doesn’t.
She calls him on it; he shrugs his shoulders. “No big deal. I said I’d take care of it.”
She says, “Yes, but when?”
He says, “Get off my case. I said I’d do it.”
She backs off. Time passes. Task is still not done. She brings it up again.
He says, “I’m busy now. Get off my back, will you? I’ll do it in my own damn time, not yours.”
She says with rising rage, “But you said you’d take care of it last week.”
He says with rising disdain, “Calm down! You’re hysterical. Look at you; going nuts over nothing!”
The pattern ends malignantly with “Endless Excuses” and “Fire and Brimstone.”

As this example illustrates, resolving differences is tough when words and actions are not in alignment. The pattern typically begins in childhood when kids are comparatively powerless, yet are constantly being told what to do. To do things their own way, they learn to fudge their responses to adults, then return to doing whatever it is they want to be doing.

Passive-aggressive patterns carry over into adulthood when:

  1. You have not acquired negotiation skills nor do you reflect on your options.
    You quickly respond to requests with a verbal “yes,” but don’t follow through with the agreed upon action. A better choice would be to reflect on your options, then choose a response.
  2. You keep your resentment hidden.
    “Hide your true feelings.” “Put a smile on your face.” “Be agreeable.” From a young age, we’re taught to express our negative feelings in socially acceptable ways. Not a bad message. But some people take it too far. Rather than say what you mean and mean what you say, you say what you think others want to hear. When your actions don’t align with your words, others get upset. Then, you get upset with them. Tension and turmoil escalates and you’re off and running to the next p-a drama.
  3. You view yourself as the “victim.”
    When you’re a member of a group (family, work, sports) and neglect your responsibilities, others will become perturbed. Rather than owning up to your obligations or re-negotiating your responsibilities, the p-a approach is to view yourself as the “persecuted victim.” Things don’t get done magically. They get done because people work together toward a common goal. Hence, it would be beneficial for you to be an active part of your group, rather than just waiting for others to tell you what to do, then resenting their interference.
  4. You have not learned how to say “no” graciously.
    Saying “no” helps you create limits, establish priorities, build character and makes your “yes” more meaningful. At times, we all need to say “no.” You can do so politely; “Sorry to say ‘no’ but I don’t have the time now.” Or, offer an alternative suggestion; “No, I can’t do it now, but tomorrow would work.” Better to say “no” directly than indirectly with passive-aggressive behavior.

The biggest obstacle to changing passive-aggressive behavior is the lack of awareness of alternative responses. Hence, people just keep on doing what they’ve always been doing, while resentment and rancor keep ruining relationship after relationship. Too bad. It doesn’t have to be this way. Start learning the power of sharing power; then get out of your own way.

Copyright © 2018: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.
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