Do you find it hard to express how you feel? Sometimes, when we’re frustrated or angry, we might express our feelings indirectly rather than being up-front. But when we aren't open about our feelings, it can create confusion and negatively impact our relationships
Passive-aggressive behaviour can ‘feel normal’ to us - especially if it’s how we’ve grown up seeing others around us deal with relationship issues. Whether done verbally or nonverbally, someone may be passive-aggressive as a way to avoid outright hurting someone else’s feelings, or as a way to show displeasure or disagreement without outright stating it.
It’s a more common way of dealing with things than you might think. But what are the signs we can look out for to recognise (and stop) being passive-aggressive in our romantic relationships? Why are we passive-aggressive in the first place? And is it really a bad thing?
What is passive-aggressive behaviour (and why do we do it?)
Also referred to as non-verbal aggression, when we talk about passive-aggressive behaviour, it refers to when you feel angry or upset with someone, but feel like you can’t or don’t want to tell them.
There are many different reasons why someone might be passive-aggressive. They might have low self-esteem, feel insecure, or be afraid of losing control. Other common reasons can also be as a way of coping with feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression. It can also be a way to try and deal with rejection or conflict, because of feelings of under-appreciation, or because they are worried that any natural feelings of anger aren’t the ‘right’ response, and so trying to sugarcoat things feels like a better option.
Counsellor Andrea Harrn explains more about passive-aggressive behaviour and how it can be a problem in our relationships.
Why is passive-aggressive behaviour bad?
We almost all exhibit signs of passive aggression from time to time. But when it becomes a pattern of behaviour or a habit within our relationships (whether that’s romantic, platonic, or with work colleagues), it can become frustrating or upsetting for the other person involved. And for the person exhibiting this behaviour, their inability to say what is wrong and express themselves clearly can often worsen the issue.
Ultimately, passive aggression can be seen as destructive behaviour. It can prevent change and growth, leading to more negative behaviours, the breakdown of trust, and further relationship problems. Frequent passive-aggressive responses can be a sign of communication issues within your relationship, and if left to become a pattern over time, can damage your relationship.
Am I being passive-aggressive? 20 examples of passive-aggression in romantic relationships
Here are some common examples of how passive-aggressive behaviours can look in a romantic relationship. Do you often do any of these? If so, it could be time to challenge your behaviour and look towards other, more helpful methods of communicating with your partner.
- You refuse to talk to them (use the silent treatment) or make them guess what’s wrong when you’re upset or angry about something.
- You make indirect comments or criticisms instead of outright saying what’s wrong.
- Instead of sharing your opinion/thoughts/criticism, you try and frame it as someone else’s (e.g. ‘Our friends think…’, ‘My Mum said…’).
- You withhold affection or intimacy when you’re angry or upset (and refuse to admit or talk about how you are feeling).
- You use sarcasm, hostile jokes or humour to make subtle digs at their appearance, decisions, other relationships, or behaviour.
- You insist that you’re ‘fine’ and expect your partner to know or guess that is wrong.
- You exclude them from going out with friends or family, or to special events as a way of ‘punishing’ them for something or showing that you’re angry.
- You’re deliberately stubborn or avoid doing things (responsibilities or obligations) in order to make things more difficult for your partner or stop them from doing something.
- You do things badly (inefficiently, in an overly-complicated way, or half-ass things) to frustrate your partner or get them to do what you want (also known as weaponised incompetence).
- You overspend or undermine activities or tasks agreed on, in order to get back at your partner as a more subtle form of sabotage.
- You’d rather cut off your own nose to spite your face. You deliberately fail or quit to ‘show them’ that you were right or to get their attention.
- You use indirect refusal (e.g. if your partner asks you to do something like take out the rubbish multiple times, and you keep putting it off until they give in and do it themselves in frustration) rather than discussing chores or shared workload at home.
- You deliberately procrastinate or do things to make yourself or you both late when you don’t want to do something.
- You constantly make excuses for not doing things or ‘forget’ important appointments or dates, instead of talking with your partner.
- You’re patronising in how you talk to your partner, in an attempt to make them feel stupid or childish, or to make yourself sound more intelligent.
- You use ‘negging’ or backhanded compliments.
- Your body language gives away your true feelings (pouting, rolling your eyes, crossing your arms) even when you refuse to admit something is wrong.
- You refuse to take or share responsibility for important decisions.
- You deliberately push your partner’s buttons to make them angry, frustrated, or upset.
- You deny any passive-aggressive behaviour if outright confronted or if your partner says you seem angry, annoyed, or upset.
How do I stop being passive-aggressive?
Admitting that you have a problem and need to change isn’t just good for your romantic relationship, it can be a huge help for you throughout your life. If you’re struggling and aren’t sure where or how to begin, ask yourself: Could I unintentionally (or intentionally) be hurting my relationship? Is it worth saving my relationship, or do I want to risk things getting worse? Would I be happy if my partner acted the way I’ve been acting?
Change doesn’t happen overnight but, with time and effort, you can find new, healthier ways of communicating how you are feeling, and start to strengthen the bonds within your relationship.
Increase your self-awareness. Recognising your behaviour is often the first step towards challenging it. The more aware you become, the more opportunities you will have to change your responses. Focus on how you are feeling, and how these feelings make you react. Once you start to notice patterns, you can start to challenge yourself.
Try journaling. Keeping a journal can be a good way of tracking how your reactions may be affecting your life. This way, you can write down how you are feeling, what’s happened, and how you reacted to things, and come back to look at these events at a later date. Over time, you can start to recognise patterns or behaviours that might not have been obvious to you. Life Coach Directory explains more about how to journal effectively.
Challenge your automatic responses. When we develop negative or unhelpful patterns of behaviour, it’s only natural to fall back into those familiar ways of reacting. Try to stay calm. Take a moment to consider your response before you act. How are you feeling? Is there a reason why you aren’t being open about these feelings? Would it help to come back to the conversation later and talk about it when you have both had more time to think things through?
Be mindful. Practising mindfulness isn’t just a fad. Mindfulness can help you to be more present in the moment, and can allow you to be more aware of your thoughts, feelings, emotions, and behaviour. Incorporating mindfulness into your routine can help you to think more clearly and become more aware of your physical and emotional reactions. Counselling Directory explains more about how you can practise mindfulness and shares a free guided meditation for calm and peace.
Practice being assertive. Being more assertive can help you to avoid passive aggression. By being more assertive, you are practising a core communication skill. In essence, being assertive helps you express yourself more effectively, stand up for your point of view, and make your wants and needs a priority. Being assertive can help to boost your self-esteem and help you to feel more confident. Counsellor Greg Savva explains more about how to communicate assertively.
Work with a therapist. Working with a counsellor can feel like a big step. But it’s important to remember that a therapist is there to offer a safe space to talk about your worries and feelings. They aren’t there to offer judgement, but can help you to identify past events that may have acted as triggers to affect how you are feeling right now. By understanding the causes of your insecurities, fears, and anxieties, you can learn new, healthier ways to manage and express your feelings.
To find out more about how therapy can help with passive aggression, visit Counselling Directory. Ready to speak with a therapist? Enter your postcode in the search below to find a qualified, experienced counsellor near you.