Passive Aggressive Behaviors and the People Who Use Them.

Passive aggressive disorder is listed in the DSM under personality disorders. I am not sure whether or not I think we should continue to call this a personality disorder. Part of the problem is the degree of pervasiveness and dysfunction that is required to call it a disorder. I would rather focus on the concept of passive aggressive behaviors. In my opinion, there are numerically few individuals who would qualify for the status of a disorder in the DSM, but I believe almost everyone, at one time or another, uses passive aggressive behaviors.

I must confess that at various times in my life I have been particularly skilled at being passive aggressive. I used these behaviors as a way to protect myself from responsibility and to keep my independence. I was afraid of the consequences of being visible and owning my feelings and recognizing that I chose my circumstances. It was easier to be a victim of the misunderstanding or unreasonable expectations and demands of others than it was to say no to them and then deal with the consequences. I avoided the consequences of self-ownership and lived as a skilled “avoider” of responsibility for what I wanted and how I really behaved. I learned this as a way to survive in my family of origin. It was a dangerous family and the cost of being caught acting in ways less than expected was very high. I learned to dance among the rain drops without really getting wet. This allowed me to look good and have a defense against all charges, yet take my anger and cause frustration and rage in all who dealt with me. In this way, I was never “responsible” for letting them down. Dealing with me was like fighting Jello. There was no hard core, no center, nothing to grab hold of. I displayed no evidence that I was being oppositional. I was skilled at looking good and talking well so that it confused the people who were trying to challenge me or call me to account. The people around me were often out of control with their anger ( which I had provoked by my passive aggressiveness) and others looked at them askance, because they were raging and hateful and upset, without apparent reason. They were told (which I appreciated!) “He is such a wonderful, nice guy. How can you be so angry with him? What is wrong with you?” Others would look at my relationships and say, “He is so great and she is such a bitch, how can he stay with her? She is always mad and complaining! She really does not appreciate what she has.”

When I realized fully the cost to me of living with this defensive, yet provocative, strategy, I began to learn more about where these behaviors and “skills” had come from. Why did I learn to behave this way? What was the cost/benefit ratio for me if I continued to act this way? Even though I was skilled enough not to be obvious with these behaviors, I also knew when I was honest with myself that I was not happy and my intimate relationships were not really intimate. They were manifestations of the false self and were masks that I could put on and take off. Others sensed that I was not really the person I pretended to be and eventually would abandon or reject me, or attack me in their helpless rage. I could “win the day” but ultimately, I was alone in a crowd. If I wanted that to change, I needed to learn more about passive aggressive behavior. Why does it happen, how does it happen, how does it work, what is the cost? These were all questions I asked in order to learn how to change my behaviors.

Among the things I learned, is that no matter how perfectly you try to structure a relationship system that involves two or more people, there will ALWAYS be conflict. No matter the community, family or work dynamic and the perfection of the philosophy behind the structure of the group, if they include/involve more than a single person, there WILL be conflict! Conflict is unavoidable. It is not inherently bad or damaging, but it is just something that most people try to avoid. We do such a disservice to ourselves and our children when we teach, or allow them to learn how to be conflict avoidant. Conflict is a real and necessary thing that is innate to human behavior. We cannot eliminate it from our systems.

I have talked through the years with many individuals who have lived in religious communities, which they embrace because of their idealism and beliefs. They want to enmesh themselves into these communities and diminish their sense of self and selfishness. Invariably, they discover and are disillusioned by the reality of human dynamics. Within communities, as within families, there is hostility, selfishness, and jealousy over the possession of desired resources, of status and standing within the community, of power, of the affection and attention and respect of others. We are, by nature, competitive beings. We are like blue jay babies always screaming, “Feed me!” similar to Seymour in “The Little Shop of Horrors.” We are like that even when we do not want to be. So the challenge for people attempting to create families, work environments and communities is to construct a way of life that will minimize these reactions, but recognize that they are innate, human, necessary and inevitable.

So what do we do to reduce the damage that the passive aggressive people in our lives do? How do we structure our group to minimize the reality of conflict and competition? How do we learn to recognize in an early state the development of resentment, hostility, greed, or jealousy? If we learn to see the early warning signs of these issues, how do we “confront” them in a healthy manner?

I have been doing some consulting with a medical office. Most of the people who go into medical careers, like most educators, are what we call “conflict avoidant.” They go out of their way to avoid a situation of conflict and hostility. They are care-takers and often pleasers. These are preferred skills for survival that integrate well with their lifestyle and profession. Yet, even within these groups there is conflict. This always happens in human groups. Part of my responsibility to these practitioners has been to teach them that these conflicts are inevitable and to recognize their reactions to the conflict. Some people become aggressive and pushy as a way to get what they want. In response to this, those who are conflict avoidant tend to respond either by being passive aggressive or passive avoidant. If they are passive avoidant, they tell themselves that it does not really matter, they do not really care, they will not get themselves out of control over some trivial thing and then they stuff their feelings. Eventually, they have a melt down and there is a crisis. Both the individuals and the management then have to deal with a “crisis” instead of a problem. The cost of this type of behavior is high, both to the individuals and to the company.

For those who are not passive avoidant, the other option often seems to be passive aggressive. They manage to work out their hostility and resentment without being “accountable” for it. They “look good” they are “always in the right.” They are very difficult to confront or challenge, but they cause anger and rage within the community because they passively (out of sight, covertly) do things to frustrate those with whom they are in conflict or whom they resent. Little things, like leaving a mess on the desk, or not passing along a message, or dropping something into the conversation with others in the group that causes a misunderstanding, or a resentment, toward the “target,” but without ever being the one who said or did it. These skills are automatic, unconscious and yet deliberate. They effectively allow the individual who is passive aggressive to be a “player” without ever having to put on a uniform and take an at bat. There is no record or score. There is no opportunity to give them honest feedback. They never have to be accountable for their feelings or their behaviors. They are the good little girls who do what they are supposed to do and it is not their fault if the thing is messed up or gets broken. They do not have to pay the direct personal price, ever. They may have to pay part of the group price, but it is clearly not their fault. They are just good doobies who are going along with the cost because they are committed members of the group.

In the long run, it is better to teach people conflict management skills and encourage a process for open accountability. People must be encouraged, nay required, to speak in “I” statements and articulate their desires, frustrations, resentments in appropriate ways through the hierarchy. If we do not teach them to do this, and require them to do this, our community/family/workplace environment will be a place of tension, frustration and resentment. It will become toxic and we will all pay a price that we do not have to pay. Conflict is an inherent part of human relationships. Skill at being openly conflicted allows opportunity for resolution and growth. These skills can be learned and mastered. It is worth the price of admission even if we have to fight our discomfort and anxiety. Those of us who learned to be successfully passive aggressive, must eventually learn that we are, in reality, not successful. We are, at best, not accountable. Ultimately, we are hurt and alone and isolated. We may not know it because we use our skills to move on to another, similar, dysfunctional relationship. If you want harmony and intimacy and genuineness in your life, learn to deal with conflict in open and honest and accountable ways. Even when you do not get your way, the cost is a healthier self!

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19 Responses to Passive Aggressive Behaviors and the People Who Use Them.

  1. Matt says:

    This is a great synopsis of passive agressive behavior, last year, my wife of 15 years, who has been passive agressive her whole life went into crisis mode, and decided she wanted a divorce to seek “happiness”. Now almost a year later… she is still in search of this mythical place, she doesn’t have a job, is hanging on to the kids with every shred of strength she has, and has really destroyed what was a wonderful family, with 3 fantastic children. I feel bad for her, she is a smart, beautiful woman, with a 4 year degree, and was well respected in the town. Now she is hiding from everyone, has no friends, and has no idea to deal fairly with the legal repercussions of the divorce. It has broken my heart, and damaged our children probably for a long, long time…

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Matt I am so sorry you and your ex wife are having to deal with these issues. For her sake and the sake of your children, I hope she gets the help she needs. As you know this is an insidious illness that destroys relationships and families all the time. You must go back and forth between rage and helplessness and sorrow. I hope you are getting help for you and the children so that none of you blame yourselves as the causes of the problems you all face together. Thank you for the courage you display in your comment.

  2. Matt says:

    Thanks Brett,
    It has been a difficult situation for my children and I to watch, and it appears her “false self” has taken over. I too fear that she will leap into another relationship and without learning what she wants or need in life, she will end up in the same situation. It is clearly evident that she has reverted to almost an adolescent state. On the one hand she says she is independent, but she needs financial help constantly, and can never find the “right job”. The feelings I have experienced are exactly as you describe, rage, helplessness and sorrow. We tried counseling for several months, but as soon as we started, she began to lie, and deflect any inquiry from the counselor, and the worst part is that the counselor bought it. She has recently had some momentary glimpses of reality, saying she needed more time to figure things out, and that she feels like she made some mistakes, but once we try and talk about them, she immediately shuts down and pushes people away. It is very hard to watch someone you love do this to themselves and their family, and even worse to offer them help and be rejected time and time again. I don’t know if she will ever hit rock bottom, or if she will ever wake up from this. My fear now is for the children, as adolescents, they are much more in tune with adult behavior, and begin to recognize her odd actions, her anger, and her resentment for authority, and responsibility

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      If they are adolescents, talk to them like adults. Educate and inform them about the things that are appropriate for them to know without demonizing her. She is ill and there are patterns to her illness. They need to know some of this so that they do not get sucked in and used up. It is a very delicate line to walk. You do not want to destroy their ability to love their mom but you do not want them seduced by her manipulations either. Speak with your therapist about how to communicate with them and what to say. Have resources available for them to speak with someone on their own so that you are less contaminated if you are able to do so. Good luck to all of you.

  3. lee says:

    passive aggressiveness from both sides is threatening my year long relationship with the best guy i have ever had. i am pretty PA, but i can recognize and admit it. my guy has a much harder time. please, what are some sources for us? i am very afraid this behavior will destroy something otherwise wonderful.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      You have made the most important first step. You must admit that you have a problem and that you want to solve it. Hopefully your partner will also want to work on this from their side. In the short term, I would recommend you get and read a book entitled “Living With A Passive Aggressive Man”, you can get it from Amazon. Then I would advise you to get into some good therapy with someone who will help you work on your anger. You need to acknowledge that you are angry and learn to say so with words and not subtle or hidden behaviors that allow you to avoid responsibility. The problem is not that you are angry, the problem is that you express and experience your anger incorrectly. Work on that. It is my intention to write another blog on this topic in the near future. Hopefully it will also address some of your questions. Good luck and thanks for responding.

  4. Amanda Farrell says:

    Terrific article. I had been browsing PA, but was only coming up with blogs from other people venting – which is important but not what I needed. I need coping strategies. I nearly laughed out loud (not good at 4 a.m. when sleep eludes you! thanks to a PA partners antics swirling in my head), when I read “He is so great and she is such a bitch, how can he stay with her? She is always mad and complaining! She really does not appreciate what she has.” This has to be the most frustrating phrase I can hear – I spend my life telling people that my partner is a street angel and a house devil – but you have to live this life to understand that!

    You truly understand the PA! For many years I didn’t know what I was dealing with, now I do, I try to get on as best I can – not easy. I do have the book you mentioned above, Living with the PA man, and it is a book that is taken out frequently. I wish I lived in the US, so that I could come talk to you!

    Keep up the good work.
    Amanda

  5. Marla Swarn says:

    The two major systems of classification, the ICD and DSM, have deliberately merged their diagnoses to some extent, but some differences remain. For example, ICD-10 does not include narcissistic personality disorder as a distinct category, while DSM-5 does not include enduring personality change after catastrophic experience or after psychiatric illness.*..^’

    Our very own homepage <http://healthwellnesslab.com/index.php

  6. ina says:

    I have noted that “when you are honest with yourself, you know you are not happy, know that your intimate relationships are not really intimate, and that the false mask can be taken on and off”. You have also stated that the passive aggressive actions are automatic, unconscious yet deliberate. These statements seem contradictory. I am trying to understand this personality disorder because my almost 37 years of marriage is falling apart. My husband is a textbook passive aggressive personality. Indecisive, unmotivated, undemonstrative when it comes to emotions and uncommunicative and has selective hearing and memory. On top of these problems, a mama’s boy (until the day his mother died), he never stood by me when his mother was slandering, humiliating me in public, now he takes her accusing, slandering me with no basis just to hurt me. He is even behaving like his inept, brutal, emotionally empty father. He has new behaviors I have never seen him do in 36 years of marriage. The last straw was, he threatened to punch me on the face for his own mistake. I have separated myself because I do not feel safe with him. I feel sorry for him because his family is a totally dysfunctional loveless and pathologically lying one yet pretended to be religious. But for years, something inside’s telling me he is not what he pretends to be, I could not fully trust him because he is not affectionate, if I hold his hands, he moves away. Intimacy is not there, he would argue all day, do everything that upsets me then expect to be intimate with him. He seems to be so self-absorbed and so out of touch with reality. Once there is peace, he would create a crisis and rage for reasons unfathomable to me. When I ask why, he’d say, “I don’t know.” I had breast cancer when I got so depressed, I wanted to die 7 years ago. I am okay now but I feel he wants me to get sick again. His actions are really “crazy making”. But he could not make me “crazy”. I keep asking why? I have accepted passive agggressives can not love, can not connect not until they decide to cast off their “false self”. You seem to have successfully healed yourself. But my husband is in denial when I suggested he read on passive aggressive behavior. He took a little look and declared, he is not passive aggressive. Back to me, the blame is on me. It is hard to live with someone who is simmering in anger all the time because I could feel/sense it. He gives me angry looks and when I catch him and ask him why. He denies and blame me again. It is really a hopeless situation. I have given this marriage my everything but it is still not enough.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I say that passive aggressive reactions are automatic, unconscious, yet deliberate. You think this is confusing. It is confusing. I believe that the behaviors are deliberate because they are habituated to the point of being reflexive. That is why I describe them as being automatic and reflexive. When intimacy is requested then there is an expectation of honesty or vulnerability. This generates an intense level of anxiety for the passive aggressive person, and they cope with the anxiety by becoming more adamant in the expression of their pa behaviors. You are clearly making progress with you ability to recognize when it is happening and how it is impacting you. You seem to be vacillating in terms of being able to stand up and say: “no more”. It might require that you leave this dysfunctional family and relationship. It might not. It could be that when you have consistent boundaries you set in play a dynamic that forces change.

      Be prepared for intense pressure from all the players if you begin to establish boundaries. It will be hard to do and be consistent. It is a little like trying to stop smoking. It can be done but most people who try regress multiple times before they are successful. I wish you luck. You have a clear understanding of what is going on and know a way forward. It will be hard to take that path, but it is worth it in the long run.

      • ina says:

        Thanks for replying and for the helpful advice. I have separated from the “crazy maker”. I am just processing the grief and the disappointment of wasting my time. He only communicates with our grown up sons who have figured him up long time ago and refuse to play his “games”. I am learning from them. But I have peace now and am not missing him, not at all. It is only now that I realized I was unhappy and disrespected from the day we wed and suffering under the shadow of his malicious, aggressive psychopath mother (she married for financial reason, there we no love for her husband) for the last 36 years and now in retirement years, I was being subjected to suffer under the shadow of his brutal, emotionally empty and horrid father by repeating his behaviors. It is just not acceptable. I deserve better. Thanks, again. You are most helpful.

  7. lmb says:

    Great article. I just broke up with my passive-aggressive social path. I know he will only harm any girl he has a relationship with. He was extremely jealous, completely “in love”, controlling, manipulative, talked about his x wife constantly, and like the above writer, had an emotionally abusive, humiliating mother who he never cut the apron strings off.

    I put up with his antics for a year, because he duped me into thinking he was a genuine, sincere guy. His love was overpowering, then it became manipulative and very abusive. I know he wants to blame me for the short comings, but Im a beautiful woman, and NEVER had to put up with that type of behavior in my life!

    I am away from this controlling manipulator, but his negative behavior has life long mental consequences. How can I forgive this man? Like you said it’s very deliberate and unconscious. He knew he was hurting me, but kept me in his life for a while, constantly going back to the circle of pain, humiliation, neglect, and rage.

    I thought he was the worse bf that I ever had in my life. I really hope he realizes what he did to me! What links to you have for survivors of this type of pain? Are there any support groups for him if and when he get’s help?

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I am glad you are beginning to see the light. In my opinion you are not completely free of him or of his personality type. Your message is full of hurt and anger and yet it is still focused on how to get a message through to him. You can’t do that, it is not about him or what he has done to you, about how he has hurt you and abused your trust. It is about you. What is it in you that allows you to be hurt that way? What is it in you that makes you still focus on getting a message through to him and not to you? Your best path is to walk away. Let go of the anger and the hurt and walk away. Find someone that does not arouse these feelings in you, or just be by yourself for awhile. You need to spend your time getting to a place where you are not willing to be abused in order to be loved. You now know what boundary violations feel like. Trust that and act on it when it happens. Do not put up with any of that as the cost of being in a relationship. Good luck, thanks for commenting.

  8. Vivian Gellman says:

    What do you do,if it’s your adult son? I was angry with him for taking his time calling me after I had a cataract operation. I told him that if he couldn’t find time to call me (his excuse is he,s always “busy” or in the middle of something )perhaps he should consider himself an orphan since he can’t seem to find the time to do the smallest thing for me. Usually I call him because I give up waiting to hear from him. My husband and I are in our 70’s and feel he should show some concern for us at this time of our life. I know he didn’t have the easiest childhood. We had a difficult marriage but we went for therapy for a long time and things are much improved but it seems too late. I tried to get him to go for help and even offered to pay for it buthe refused. He has 2’sons one from his first short lived marriage and a second from the second. His second partner seems to know how to manage him and I think he,s a very good father.,It’s been a month and I only had a one word answer “thanks” when we sent him a message for his birthday. Usually I break down and contact him when we ve had a conflict but this time I.m determined not to but my heart is broken. I,m afraid he will use what I said to cut off our relationship and destroy our family. Is there anything I can do?
    Vivian

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I am sorry that you are struggling with your relationship with your son. I do not have much information to go on, but from the hurt and anger that is in your message, I would imagine that your son is avoiding responding in order to avoid being accused of not loving you enough, not caring for you enough, or not being the kind of son you want him to be. I would encourage you to quit focusing on what his failures are and on what you want him to do, and rather just be honest when you say you miss him. Direct messages that are not implying some kind of resentment are the most helpful. Say “I love you”, “I miss you” I need your help with this specific thing”. Do not imply that if he is not willing or able to help or do what you want that he has failed in some way and let you down. Do not play the martyr card. Just say your are sorry he can’t help, but with no hidden message of agenda of letting him know you are angry or hurt.

      If you are angry or hurt say so specifically as your feelings and not as some message to him that he must change or be different. That will drive him further away into what you are calling passive aggressive behaviors. If you are still open to therapy, go see someone who can help you find a way to handle your own feelings and look at your own behaviors, those are the only ones you have any control over. The sooner you learn that and internalize it the less you will hurt and the less alone you will feel.

      I am aware that this is not what you wanted to hear from me, and that I may completely misunderstand the situation. I have such a limited picture of information to go on. Generally passive aggressive behaviors are anger driven and based on the inability or unwillingness to pay the price of being caught out. These individuals are very manipulative and skilled at avoiding the negative messages and folding the blame or responsibility onto others. Make double sure that you are not sucked into those games. The only way to win is not to play. Even if you are invited to play, “just say no.”

  9. Jenny says:

    How can I continue to love myself and a man who is literally driving me crazy? I don’t know if my boundaries are just weak or whether he is just that good. Maybe both. I have NEVER been in a relationship with such difficulties and we are newlyweds! When most couples are still on their honeymoon, I was packing my bags and ready to move out the second week. “Certainly, it’s not him,” I told myself. “He’s too nice. But what about this he just did, or was it what he didn’t do? What just happened? It’s got to be me.” Not this time.
    Listen, I have psychoanalyzed myself and called on more counselors and self help groups in 8 months than I’ve done my entire life. And that’s saying a lot because I know I’ve got some stuff to work on. However, this is nuts and I’m doing everything in my power to keep my sanity. I’ve even given up my power and turned things over to the Lord, who is the only one I feel can help this marriage, if you want to call it that. Most of the time there’s no sex. No affection. No conversation. Not even arguing. When there is it’s because I’ve stopped caring and begun doing my own thing, leaving him alone which is what he acts like he wants me to do. Yes, I’ve made the mistake of telling him that I think he’s passive aggressive and trying to get him to understand the dynamics of this. This was my last resort out of desperation. I know now, it’s not going to work but neither did leaving, loving, fighting, begging, threatening ignoring, controlling, confronting, submitting, pretending, seducing, flirting, crying, cleaning, you name it. I can’t be insane because I keep trying different things. This dude, is like forcing me to read his mind and in so many ways he straight out tells me I have to! But obviously he doesn’t know what the hell is going on so how am I suppose to? OR does he? This guy is making me see all sorts of sides of myself and I don’t like it. Not because I can’t handle questioning potential faults but because I know I can only change me! I feel stuck. I don’t even know what’s genuine and what’s not as far as his behavior goes. Is he really just being a loving husband who’s trying to help his wife find her keys she knows she didn’t lose? There’s always unexplained mysteries happening around this house and he’s the hero in solving them or playing the innocent victim. Do I sound like a paranoid person yet? He says he feels misunderstood yet also says he doesn’t know how to express what he wants to say so he doesn’t speak for days. I don’t want to get divorced but even more so, I don’t want to end up being committed to the nut house as a bi-polar, borderline, paranoia, schizo which this relationship is making me feel like. Btw, if that ever did happen, this man would be the first to bring me flowers, without water, with a card, that’s not signed.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Hello Jenny, sorry this post got lost in my emails and I just found it over a month later. I am curious to see if these are still the conditions you are experiencing a month later. Has it gotten better? Has it gotten worse? What you describe is the rage that is typical of people who are in relationships with someone who is skilled at being passive aggressive. Before I say more, let me know how you are doing. Lets see if the community has comments to offer in the meantime.

  10. Jenny says:

    Just to add to that. There is always an sense of negativity or lack of energy or suspicion or the feeling that somewhere at sometime I may have said or done something to hurt his feelings or upset him. Not because of what he says directly. It’s all the little subtle comments that are negative as the hours or days pass. They could be about anything which makes me question everything. I know these are hints of anger because if and when he finally blows it all comes out. Just not in words.

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      You are on the right track. Hopefully both of you will stay in therapy. He needs to be honest with himself about what his feelings are, but he may not know. Typically people who are passive aggressive are in denial about how they got that way. It is a learned manipulative tool. When he recognizes that he is doing this he then has a choice about changing it. It is hard and it is uncomfortable but the cost benefit ratio is much easier to deal with when the behaviors are acknowledged and direct. If he does not change then you have a choice about how you stay in the relationship. My encouragement is to stay cleanly without manipulative gamesmanship. Good luck and please talk about this with your therapist.

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