FOR THE LOVE OF RELATIONSHIPS – Passive-aggressive behavior

Recently, I have been hearing several people refer to someone as being passive-aggressive. Exploring this, I realized how common it is. To define this more clearly, passivity is described as not caring or letting things go. Aggressiveness is the opposite of passive, as one is ready to fight and defend. Someone who utilizes passive-aggression does not express negative feelings directly. Though they feel angry, resentful, or frustrated, they act neutral, pleasant, or even cheerful. Then they find indirect ways to show how they really feel through sarcasm, getting even, or angry outbursts.  An example might be if one asked their partner or coworker to do something, they might say, ‘Sure, I will be happy to!” but they will complain, feel put upon, become angry and distressed as they are completing the requested task. Another example could take the tactic of sabotage. If a friend, loved one, or colleague revealed they were trying to lose weight, a passive-aggressive person might bring a cake or sweets home or to the office. If you find yourself behaving like this, it could damage your personal and professional relationships.

There are red flags that someone you know is being passive-aggressive. You declare that you are going to be late, and your partner intentionally slows down. A colleague or family member resents instruction, complains, and stomps around, but eventually does what they are told. Someone who delays finishing a task that someone else requested, makes intentional mistakes, and gets the task done just under the deadline might be behaving in a passive-aggressive way. Some examples of passive-aggressive phrases are: “I am not mad.” “Whatever.” “I am coming!” I have no idea what you are talking about.” “Why are you getting so upset?”

This behavior emanates from anger, frustration, and displeasure which are normal, even healthy emotions. People who rely on passive-aggression rather than direct communication to show these emotions often grew up in a family where that behavior was modeled. It might not have felt safe for them to directly express their feelings as a child. Individuals can also pick up this behavior as adults. They may act this way because it helps them get what they want or may do it to avoid confrontation. 

Many don’t realize they’re being passive-aggressive. The behavior may feel “normal”. They might think it is the best way to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or to prevent something bad from happening, like losing their job.

If the passive-aggression of a friend, family member, or colleague is obvious and you want to address it, try being direct about what you want or need. Let them know that you are seeing a pattern of this passive- aggressive behavior and give them examples using “I” statements.  For example, “When I ask you to do something, you do it, but I sense a level of anger and resentment. Or, “When I tell you we are running late, you appear to slow down.”  Or “If I ask you to change something you are doing, you take it as a personal attack.” According to behavioral therapists, the best way to put an end to this unproductive behavior is to call attention to it in a kind way.  Model honesty and direct communication and make it emotionally safe for them to do the same.