It can be subversive, manipulative and subtle – just a mutter here, a silence there – but it can quickly destroy a relationship. Here’s how to spot the signs of PA, and what you can do to tackle the problem
Passive aggression is a persistent way of relating to others, which has a negative impact on relationships. It takes many forms, but generally can be described as non-verbal aggression. It is an inability to express difficult feelings in a rational way, and makes problems worse.
Healthy relationships involve honest communication, where both parties listen and accept responsibility. Not so with passive aggressive (PA) relationships, where angry thoughts and feelings are buried beneath fear and resentment. The aggression often comes out in other ways that indicate there is a problem, without addressing the real issues.
Typical PA behaviours can include giving your other half, friend, or co-worker the “silent treatment”, sulking, using negative body language, or denying there is even a problem. Someone may act one way (friendly), but feel another (seething), give mixed messages, or even seek revenge.
It can feel very confusing when you are on the receiving end, because the behaviours are often manipulative and subversive. At its worst, PA behaviour can include verbal abuse (muttering under their breath, put downs), emotional abuse (not giving space for your feelings), mental abuse (gaslighting), physical abuse(accidentally-on-purpose hurting you), and sexual abuse (withdrawal of intimacy or using sex as a bargaining tool).
PA behaviour is grounded in fear, a lack of assertiveness, low self-esteem and poor communication skills. It is fed by irrational thoughts and twisted logic, or the rewriting of history to suit the aggressor.
How it can affect relationships
Passive aggression can be displayed by both people in a relationship. The original passive aggressor is the person who finds it hard to discuss emotions, has poor communication skills and avoids confrontation. The secondary passive aggressor is the partner, who tends to be more passive, who cannot express their feelings due to fear of response or conflict, walks on eggshells around their partner, and feels they have no voice.
One example is a couple who came to me for counselling – the names are changed here, of course.
Paul and Gemma wanted to understand why their relationship had gone so wrong. Paul had recently been made redundant, but found it hard to share his thoughts and emotions with Gemma. He was angry at his own situation, and resentful of Gemma’s success.
On the other hand, Gemma was feeling a lot of pressure and was in need of some TLC. When she tried to share her day with Paul, she did not feel heard. He stopped eye contact, and when she tried to make plans, Paul would jeopardise them. When she tried to raise any issues, she was met with extreme reactions, or denials of any problem. Paul would become aggressive, would bang around the house, and rational conversation became hard.
It got to the point where Gemma felt there was little point in trying to talk to Paul – it was as if he was “out of bounds”. Gemma was walking on eggshells and felt that it was safer not to speak out. Although she knew he was under pressure about work, it didn’t stop her feeling angry with him. Why was he using her as his “punch bag”? It wasn’t fair and she didn’t deserve it.
Gemma’s own behaviour began to change, as she lost respect for Paul and no longer wanted intimacy. A wall was building between them that felt hard to break down. Gemma was empathic and caring, so this situation was very painful for her. She longed for a discussion to sort things out, but Paul continued to deny there was anything wrong.
Where passive aggression is happening in a relationship, real issues and problems are not properly discussed, which affects trust between people and can eventually lead to the destruction of the relationship.
What to do if you are on the receiving end of passive aggression
Being on the receiving end of PA behaviour can feel confusing, intimidating, bullying, controlling and scary. You might feel guilty, and even that it’s your fault.
But remember: while it is always a good idea to reflect on your own behaviour, you are not responsible for your partner’s behaviour. However they choose to act is not a reflection on you; it says nothing about you, and it is not your fault.
Think about whether you are more passive or assertive.
Passive behaviour includes:
• Denying your emotional needs in order to please others or save the relationship.
• Finding it hard to say “no” for fear of rejection or judgement.
• Not speaking up for yourself or your equal rights.
Assertive behaviour includes:
• Honest communication about your thoughts and feelings.
• Understanding that others are entitled to their point of view.
• Being clear about what is and is not acceptable behaviour.
• Letting others know when your boundaries are being crossed.
Be aware of how the passive aggression operates in your relationship and try to be understanding. Calmly explain how your partner’s behaviour is affecting you. Be aware of your own responses and be honest about your part in the situation. If your partner still chooses to deny the problem, then talk to them about the consequences if things do not improve.
Everybody deserves to be respected and valued. It starts with you. Value, love and respect yourself – and trust your intuition to make appropriate decisions.
What to do if you might be acting out in a passive aggressive way
Do you act out, rather than speak out? If you don’t like your own behaviour, you can choose to do something about it. What are the underlying problems that are causing you to feel so angry? Is there anything you can do to resolve these issues? Can you take responsibility for this, or do you expect others to make the changes?
Try not to feel attacked or judged. Instead, take an overall view of the situation and become solution-focused rather than stuck in a hurtful dialogue. Be assertive in expressing yourself. You have a right to your thoughts and feelings, as does your partner.
Start by making a list of your own negative behaviours and the impact that these are having on your relationship, and yourself. Begin to see that your desire to get back at your partner, defeat them, or annoy them, is not working. Be honest about why you feel the way you do, and give them a chance to respond. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, and express your emotions.
Nothing is more powerful than vulnerability in bringing people together in a deep and connecting way.
Be honest about your part in conflict or problems. It is OK to get things wrong. We learn more from our mistakes in life than from our successes. Be kind and forgiving to yourself as well as to others. They get things wrong, too.
Communicate with truth, kindness and compassion to strengthen your relationship and build a long-term future of happiness.
Andrea Harrn is a BACP registered counsellor and a leading expert on passive aggressive behaviour. She is also the creator of ‘The Mood Cards’ series of books and card decks. Learn more and get in touch with her at andreaharrn.co.uk