Passive Aggressive Behavior Redux!

Last week, I wrote about being passive aggressive. I discussed the reasons for it, the ways that it manifests and what one needs to do to stop themselves from being passive aggressive. This week I want to talk about what to do if someone with whom you are in a relationship is passive aggressive. I also want to talk about what to do if you work with someone that uses these skills to protect themselves.

If you are in a relationship with someone important to you who uses passive aggressive behaviors to get their way, it is extremely frustrating and angry making. You become “rage-ful” and helpless. It is extremely difficult to challenge these behaviors without looking like you are silly and out of control or at the very least, “over-reacting.” But you are not. It is a system that is additive in its damage over time, and you develop less and less room to breathe. If you have fallen in love with someone before you discovered this ugly truth about them, what do you do? Do you have to abandon the relationship? Do you have to become an ugly, hateful person just to survive? Is there some better way to participate in the relationship without becoming subjected to the displaced wrath and manipulation of the passive aggressive partner?

I think there are two essential survival strategies for coping with people who are passive aggressive, PA. They are both within your power, not your PA partner’s. You can control these strategies and learn how and when to use them. Then at least you have a “choice” and a chance to be proactive in your own self-care and in determining the boundaries of an intimate relationship. The strategies are “self-honesty” and “reality testing.” They are both harder than one would think, but are both necessary for survival and the reclamation of dysfunctional relationships.

First, I will discuss self-honesty. I find that many, if not most people have difficulty being honest with themselves about what they feel, what they want, and how they try to get what they want. We tend to use justifying excuses and camouflage behaviors to mask our real intent, even from ourselves. This occurs in part because we have been culturally taught that to be self-interested and self-honest is selfish and arrogant. I remember being told by my parents and my teachers that it was a bad thing to think about and pursue what “I” wanted. It was self -indulgent and it meant I had a character weakness. In reality they gave me those messages, along with others, about how I should feel and how I should behave as a strategy for controlling my behavior and making me easier to deal with. I was expected to be submissive to the wisdom of my elders and allow their control over my behaviors. I remember once when my father was about to beat me with an electric extension cord, I attempted to “reason” with him about the power of persuasion relative to the power of force. His pithy rejoinder was that he “did not believe in all that psychology crap” and I would do what he wanted me with a smile on my face and a good attitude or he would know the reason why! So as I explained last week, I learned to be passive aggressive and manipulative, to use hidden and unaccountable weapons in order to get my way. It was a learned survival skill, but it was not a way to develop intimate relationships.

I believe that healthy selfishness is, indeed, healthy. I tell my clients that I do not “do guilt,” I do remorse. I think guilt is a manipulative tool used by others to control your behavior and feelings. If you learn to be self -honest you can learn to admit what you really want and to go directly after it. You do not have to expend the resources and energy to go around three sides of the square in an attempt to hide and misdirect others, but you can more efficiently, go after what you want. You can also more deliberately admit what you want and proactively try to negotiate for it.

Reality testing is the other skill I advocate. To develop good reality testing many questions need to be asked: What is “really” going on? What do I “really” want? What is the real cost of my choices? What is the payoff of my choices? I can choose to live with and love someone that is difficult to love and who requires me to work very hard to make the relationship satisfactory. I cannot “honestly” be a victim and be stuck with someone who is inappropriate for me. If I choose them, that choice comes at a cost. For example, if my wife asks me to attend a school function with a bunch of elementary teachers and administrators, I should go inside myself and ask how I really feel about going. If I don’t want to go, I should tell her. She may then negotiate with me and tell me the cost of my not going would be that she would be unhappy and angry for several days, or tell me that if I don’t go, there will be no sex for a month, or that she will go alone, but “I will be sorry.” Or she could just honestly say, “This event is important to me, even if you do not want to go, will you?” I have a choice. I can say yes, because you matter to me, even though it is something I dread, I will go. Or I can say, no I hate that too much and won’t go. The point here is that whatever choice I make, I have to honestly reality test it. If I go, it cannot be as a victim. I cannot go begrudgingly and punish her by acting out and being angry and resentful. If I go, I must go openly and fairly. I cannot “fake nice” and then present a bill of anger and manipulation to be collected later. If I am not willing to do this, I should honestly say I am not going, and then deal with whatever issues that raises in our relationship openly and honestly. That has been an easy lesson to learn for me in this relationship because my wife does not have a passive aggressive bone in her body.

I remember in my first marriage times when my wife would come in as I was watching the evening news to quietly announce that dinner would be delayed. She needed milk from the store and had to go get it. If I were not alert and did not recognize the hidden message, which was “get up and go get some milk!” I was in huge trouble. If I responded, “That’s okay, I don’t mind eating later,” I would be making a huge mistake. My first wife did not come out directly and ask for what she wanted. I was supposed to guess. She always maintained plausible deniability. My present wife does not. When we first got married, I was expecting the behavior I had experienced for almost twenty years from my first wife. If the same situation happened, I would jump up and say, “Let me go to the store dear.” My wife would laugh and say, “No, you are busy, I can go.” I would say, “No, no, no let me.” She would reply, “ If I wanted you to go, I would ask you to go,” and then she would leave to go to the store. I would wait and watch for days for the price to be delivered for my “selfish” behavior. I was frustrated because the price never came. Eventually, I learned to trust that my wife was “honest” by reality testing. She would, indeed, ask me to go to the store if that was what she wanted. There was never ever a price to pay for her having to go. So, in part, the message is that having a healthy partner helped me learn to be healthier.

The second situation I want to examine is dealing with a passive aggressive coworker. If you take a new job, and everyone is being “nice” to you, the new guy, it feels good. Eventually, when the new wears off, you find that this workplace is much like all others. In every situation where you have a group of people, you are likely to have some who have issues, are jealous, angry, manipulative, and dishonest or masked in how they present themselves. They have different skill sets for acheiving their goals. It is not always as easy to confront situations at work because you do not always have the option to quit. The bills must be paid, obligations must be met. My answer to this dilemma is the same two skills. Self-honesty and reality testing are required for survival and satisfaction. You may have to make the honest decision that you cannot trust someone you work with. Perhaps they steal your sales leads, maybe they put blame on you for things that go wrong on a team project and take the credit for things that go well. You cannot afford to have illusions about their self interest and their strategy. You cannot allow yourself to be a “victim.” You must also act with self- interest and self -honesty. You may have to be aware that you cannot stay in this job. The cost of staying will be high and unsupportable over time. The point, then, is to admit this to yourself and begin to look for a way to transition to a new opportunity. Perhaps, you can transfer within the company if it is large enough to have other options, or to a new job, if it does not. What you cannot do is “lie” to yourself that if you just work hard enough you will be noticed and successful. It is not productive if you create a crisis and quit in a huff. Make a plan and work your plan.

If it is not bad enough to need to quit, then you can choose to stay and work on strategies to protect yourself. Keep good records and make sure you talk to your supervisor about your concerns. Learn to appropriately challenge the offender and talk about your limits. Always use “I” statements: “I have a problem with my breathing, and wonder if I could ask you to wear less perfume to work.” Not, “ someone around here is wearing too much perfume”, or “I have an issue that is causing me difficulty, I really need emotionally to have a sense of ownership about my space and wonder if I could ask you to stop sitting at my desk to use the phone.” Rather than, “This is my space, keep out you b***h!” Remember to document incidents and build alliances with others, but not in an aggressive, hateful way. There will be others at work who respond to the problem the same way you do, but they will not be as skilled as you at confrontation. Conflict is not inherently, or even mostly, a bad thing. It does happen, you will feel better and be more successful if you learn how to manage conflict rather than avoid it. Remember, self-honesty and reality testing are the two essential skills for resisting someone that is passive aggressive.

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23 Responses to Passive Aggressive Behavior Redux!

  1. kathy says:

    I’ve read tons of posts on the internet about passive aggressive behaviour and how to deal with it, and this is the absolute best, simple and straight forward.
    I’ve worked with a very passive aggressive man for 2 years, ignoring it the first year, brooding on it the 2nd year, attempting to nicely put my point across, hinting, sending emails rather than talking, then escalated to calling him out on his behaviour, which didn’t change much by the way, and eventually calling a meeting with the dept head when my frustration got so bad, I seriously wanted to punch him out and finally after feeling completely impotent.
    I was terrified of confronting in a meeting with the dept head, because none of the other staff work with him all day, so aren’t aware of his infuriating passive aggressive ways, however, they did ignore the fact that he’d leave their work unfinished, for days, weeks and even months, until they all came to me with their work, because I was more agreeable.
    He is very well liked, pleasant, somewhat charming, always say yes, very compliant, but actually DOES nothing.
    I spoke my truth in the meeting, naming specific behaviours and the problems they cause.
    The nice guy facade actually slipped into stubborn visible anger, with typical passive aggressive responses: I’m sorry you feel that way – said through gritted teeth.
    Of course the dept head made lots of excuses for his behaviour, after all, he’s a nice guy, never gets angry, never says no……..but I knew that would happen.
    The outcome is, that very specific roles are now delegated to this man, they will be his personal responsibility and only he will have to answer if they are left undone.
    Of course, he doesn’t like me now, won’t speak to me, but I am not bothered.
    I came home from work for the first time in 2 years, not stressed to the max, no double vision from spending the entire day eyes glued to my computer screen, with no one to give me a break. I don’t feel angry or frustrated either.
    I did worry that I may have been too direct, too honest, but that quickly dissipated. It was needed and I did not want to continue feeling like a victim who had been tied up and gagged by his manipulation.
    Thank goodness someone, Brett, appreciates honesty!!!! Thank you.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I am glad you found this post to be encouraging. You were very brave and strong to do what you did at work, and I am glad it worked out for you. Even if it had not, you would have felt better because you gave up being a victim. It does not always work out directly, sometimes you have to give yourself permission to move on and find another job or another relationship. It is always scary to think about that sort of thing, but I believe it is infinitely better than being the “helpless” victim of someone who is being passive aggressive. Congratulations!

  2. Mary says:

    The person I have issues with is my 34 year old daughter. She lives in another state and so you would think that in itself would keep the abuse at a minimum. However, she has my grandchildren and doesn’t let me talk to them.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Mary I am sorry your have having this experience. You have to realize that she has you over a barrel and there is not much you can do to change her behavior. When she needs you she will make her children available to you. When she does not need you she will become angry over some slight and then punish you by being angry and lashing out and finally by blocking your grand children. You need to make your peace with that and do what you can over time to develop a relationship with the grand children when you have those opportunities. It is hard, but it can be done.

  3. Renee Monrose says:

    Brett, I am looking for a good book about how to deal with passive aggression in a relatonship. The one on passive aggressive men doesn’t apply here and most of the books I have found either just explain the symptoms and/or are fluffy and hystrionic. The person with whom I’m involved is a serious intellectual and won’t read a book that isn’t “serious” enough. Any suggestions?


    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Renee thank you for your question. What is interesting about it is that it is a reflection of the problem. You pose your question in terms of the resistance of your partner. Your partner is intellectual and will not read mass produced psychobable. I respect that and can indeed give you some more “intellectual” references. However, it won’t really matter. The issue becomes not what your partner reads or understands, for they will not have an epiphany of self awareness and change their behavior.

      The issue is how do YOU stay in a relationship with someone who utilizes these defenses of the self as a way to keep barriers to intimacy alive, and protect themselves from your manipulations and demands while they are being extremely manipulative and demanding through the use of passive aggressive defenses. You need to focus on what you can do to say no to those behaviors. Do not engage. Just because your partner drops the hook into the water does not mean that you have to bite it. They will always throw you a bone to chase, but you have to decide not to chase the bone.

      What do you want? Ask for it directly. What will happen if you don’t get what you want? Tell them directly, once, then act. Do not go on and on and beg and cry or be angry or defend yourself. You have a right as a grown up to ask for and negotiate for what you really want. You need to decide what you are willing to pay for it. The passive aggressive behavior or your partner will change, or you will change partners.

      I hope this makes sense to you, but if you still want to chase the hook, read any of the works on Borderline behaviors by Masterson, or the works on Personality Disorders by Kernbergh. They are the gold standard sources. Do a google search. Remember that the Disorder of Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder was discarded when the DSM was revised for edition 4. So the materials are somewhat dated. But the passive aggressive traits and discussions of them still exist and are still valid. Good luck to you, and thanks for writing. Brett

  4. Wendy says:


    My ex is I believe a PA but after reading your articles it has come to my attention that I may have the traits myself after years of being at the receiving end of PA behaviours. I have been separated from my ex for 2 years however he is still controlling one part of my life. We own a house together but he has delayed and procrastinated in buying me out as he still lives there. I am at loss on to how to get him to progress with this. I feel he is just delaying to punish me and to deny my request. He has always taken a dislike to anything that I suggest simply because it was I who suggested it. How do I communicate with him and get him to progress with buying me out? I have ran out of ideas and wonder if you can help?

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Wendy thank you for your question, as you already know this is a complicated and difficult problem. There are legal and financial issues here that operate as leverage on your choice making. It seems that you are beginning to consider that part of the power of this leverage is due to your continuing availability or vulnerability.

      The question becomes why do you stay and allow yourself to be manipulated. You would probably answer that he owes you for half the house, that you must agree to sell it together and that you cannot afford to move out without the money he owes you. While all of that may be true or seem to be true in an objective, legal sense, in psychological terms you are enslaving yourself. You must get strong enough to realize that you have and that you are making a choice to be in this position. You must do a cost benefit analysis of staying and continuing to burn years of your life caught in this web or paying what it costs to get out of it, whatever that is.

      You will never win a contest with a passive aggressive individual by being “reasonable” or “fair” or “understanding” they will eat you alive. This is the power and strength of their strategy (even if their strategy is unconscious and not deliberate and self known to them). You can only ever change your behavior.

      Are you old enough to remember the anti war slogan of the sixties and seventies? “Suppose they gave a war and no one came?” You need to make your peace with this situation as it is and as it will continue to be, or else you need to get out of the situation entirely, even if that result is not “fair”. Life is not fair, nor is it a dress rehearsal. Good luck, please believe that I am not trying to be nasty or disrespectful, I am trying to say something that will help you become free to be yourself and be happy, either by deciding to stay knowing what is involved and making your peace with it, or by deciding to leave. Brett

  5. Sharon says:

    I appreciate your words and find the strategies you mention helpful in those situations. Now, though, what of a mother (92) who was always PA but now after the death of our father has fully bloomed? She insists on our attention and we feel obliged to do our duty and are prepared to do it, but there is little affection between us. She has given others we do not know, outside of the family, all medical and financial powers of attorney. We feel she’s being taken advantage of, but when we try to intervene are pushed away.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I am really sorry to hear about your situation. Unless you think it necessary to take the situation to court to protect your mother and her assets, you are basically caught in an intolerable fix. She will not change and she will be demanding and she will not appreciate what you and your siblings do. She will complain and be righteous and then she will die and leave a mess that others will be involved in. You need to work on steeling yourself for he battle to come. It will help if you and your siblings are able to speak to and trust each other, this will be hard. If one of you peels off and becomes the “favorite” child, the only one to understand and be trusted it will be very damaging to the rest of you.

      I would encourage you to find outside resources to talk to who will let you vent and hold your hand. There really is not much you can do other than make yourself stronger for the coming hurts.

  6. Sara says:

    I seriously need immediate help!!! And i just felt maybe there is hope here to find a way to end my suffocation. I’ve met my PA fiancee two years ago on a vacation.. He was not ‘into’ relationships or having a regular job he was a freelancer andliving life like an “artist”.. Ive been away from my family because the relationship required that.. He decided that where we are now isnt a good place to live in.. And i hav been praying for this decision to happen cuz im under his control he wouldnt give me the freedom to do anything i want in life but at the same time he tells me wats stopping you?!” he never tells me not to do something but he gives me all the reasons why i shouldnt do it…
    Now that im finally getting the hell out of this country and gonna live again with my family until we get married.. Today he tells me…. Maybe after a month “YOU CAN COME HERE AND STAY WITH ME AND MY PARENTS” I feel that im not even allowed to tell him no i wanna stay with MY parents cuz ive been missing them.. I cannnot say that to him cuz i know he will tell me that he changed his whole life for me…
    Wats sad is that i know he doesnt want me to stay that month with him and his parents for good reasons! He doesnt even look at me while talking to me.. He wants that cuz he knows how badly ive been wanting to get bk to my family . And he probably thinks that im taking him away from his parents! Even though he’s

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Hello Sarah, thank you for writing. From what you have written I know several things, one that you are very bright and knowledgable. You already know exactly what is going on and what you need to do. I am sad to say however, that you will not do what you know you need to do. You have not suffered enough and are not in enough pain. My best guess is that you will not leave him until you have another situation (a crisis of some kind) that requires you to develop your victimization in another direction. Perhaps one of your parents will become ill, or you will marry him and have a child that requires you to chose between the child and your husband who is a passive aggressive narcissist. Either way, you are more likely to chose to change your victim script and remain a victim even while you understand what you are doing, than chose to be free and independent and responsible for yourself. I wish you luck, your struggle will be long and hard and I hope that eventually you will be free and successful. If you get a chance, please check back in. Brett

  7. Sara says:

    Even though he’s the one who took that decision to move where i used to live.. Home close to my family.. Plz note that he’s nacissist as well.. I just dont know how to face his manipulative behaviour he always turns tables even wen he tries to make me happy he still has to stick a few words that ust makes me miserable and makes me worry about my sanity with him!!!!!

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      You are capable of being independent and free, you are choosing not to be. Do not look at him and why he is behaving the way he is, look at what it is in you that keeps you attached to him when he treats you this way. Good luck. Be response able not responsible. You are able to respond by saying no. Please work on that concept.

  8. Jean Baeck says:

    I am the mother of a 29 year old son with obvious passive aggressive tendencies which have become difficult to live with. He left home and then returned and has recently left again which is a considerable relief, however it seems to me that his PA is also affecting his work and possibly other areas of his life as well.
    I can see how my behaviours as a single parent would have negatively impacted him growing up and I know he holds a lot of anger toward me. Thank you for your article it has helped me to see the situation more clearly and hopefully to manage things a little better in the future.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I wish you luck in your efforts to resist getting pulled into the vortex of his anger and frustration. You cannot rescue him you must take care of yourself and still find ways to love him. Sometimes, that is hard.

  9. Jenny says:

    The milk scenario is a prefect example! So, when I’m just talking out loud with no intentions of sending the message that I want my husband to do something, am I confusing him? Is just talking in general confusing, because I’m a communicator and love conversation and talk about whatever. I don’t think I’m an annoying hyper blabber mouth though. Just regular conversation. I’m a Sanguine, he’s Phlegmatic. Is he trying to read between the lines and so he offers to go to the store because he thinks I must really want him to do it? When he offers, I let him go, without saying what your wife said, which was great. But how do I know that he’s not just being a loving husband who is willing to run an errand for me or whether he’s doing it out of fear and then harbors resentment and also has a one up on me? I would love to think he’s just being a loving husband because that’s what he tells me but then all of a sudden he shuts down early in the evening doesn’t have time for the important talk or special time together we’ve tabled twice already this week and he decides to hit the sack because he’s all of a sudden just too tired. He seems to be “too tired” a lot. So this creates the next set of mind reading games which I feel pulled into. He gets up later, asks if I’m coming to bed. If I ask him if he would like me to, I don’t get a clear answer. Then I have to make a decision trying to figure out what he wants or needs. He got up, when he was so tired, and came and asked me so it must be important to him that I come to bed. So I do. And before I can climb in the sheets and give him a kiss and a hug good night his back is turned lights are out and he just mumbles “love you.” Instead of cleaning up the kitchen after dinner as I planned to do so he didn’t have to wake up to a mess, I’m going to just lay here at 8pm? I’ve tried to be direct about these little moment with him but without success. So my “nagging and neediness” as he calls it, by trying to talk, turns into fleeing, that turns into uncontrollable rage and fighting, which then turns into shutting down and acting just like him pretty much. Then it comes back around in my attempt to connect and understand which is, as you can guess, “nagging and being needy.” And I’ve have calmly called these behaviors out. Even my own. We just started counseling. And my prayer is that this therapist is really good.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I pray that your therapist is really good as well. You are describing a situation where you partner is using withdrawal as an emotional control. He knows that it raises your anxiety and that makes you more malleable. He may not know it consciously, it may be unconscious but it is a learned behavior. From your note you are over thinking and making assumptions that get you into a state of high anxiety. You do not describe how this plays out other than saying he criticizes you for your neediness and nagging. There is a book that might be of some help it is called “Living With a Passive Aggressive Man.” I would encourage you to read it. Work on your own communication make sure that it is clean and ask for what you want directly not manipulatively. You only have control over your own behavior. Be careful of being seduced into the games by your anxiety or your fear of “tension”. Before you try anything though, discuss it with your therapist. Remember it is not a game strategy to help you play better, it is a goal to learn not to play at all. Good luck and thank you for writing.

  10. Jenny says:

    Very good words of wisdom. Thank you! I het now what you mean by not letting my own anxiety draw me into the game. I’ve got figure how to separate or differentiate between my own anxiety and what the truth is so I’m not acting on it all time. Even when provoked. He’s not responding to my emotions so obviously I need to try to myself and find other outlets instead of trying to approach him with different emotions.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Absolutely, you are getting it. You need to focus on proactively presenting yourself and seeking affirmation honestly. You can also work on anxiety management skills. There are lots of resources for that on the Web. The main point is self awareness and intentionality. Work hard and you can change in the way that you desire. It will pay off in more than one relationship. Good luck.

  11. Olga says:

    I see that it’s me who behave in passive aggressive way with my husband and others. It’s me who try to manipulate all the time. I don’t want it but I cannot do anything with it. Do you think it’s possible for me to stop doing this way? Do you think I have a chance to change myself?

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Yes if you work on it. It will be hard and progress will fluctuate. You will slide up and down in your conscious intention to behave differently. It is possible to learn new skills and to learn to present yourself in a relationship differently. Please do not give up trying! Good luck.

      • Olga says:

        Thank you! I won’t give up because if I will I become lonely poor girl without my lovely husband ( But yes It’s extremely difficult to behave another way, to be joyful, not jealous, normal and free. Sometimes it seems impossible to change anything and I start to blame myself for my behavior in relationship.

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