What is a Passive-Aggressive Personality?
The term passive-aggressive personality relates to a person who typically conceals his aggressive or angry tendencies.
Instead of clearly showing he is upset with or not approving of something he will outwardly indicate he is okay with it.
He will harbor resentments or have negative feelings that will go unexpressed. He will likely behave in ways that contradict what he has said or has agreed to do, usually causing great frustration to his partner or spouse.
Passive-aggressiveness is a type of defense mechanism for people who find it too difficult to simply confront things they disagree with or don’t like head on for fear of being disliked or disapproved of.
How Does Someone become Passive-Aggressive?
As with many styles of behavior, it is thought that passive-aggressive behavior develops early in a person’s life.
In a healthy household, a child’s parents would allow him to give expression to feelings of assertiveness or anger. They would help the child understand these strong feelings and learn how to express them appropriately.
The parent’s objective would be for the child to assert his thoughts and feelings while showing respect for other people’s thoughts and feelings as well.
However, many parents are not that healthy.
If a child grew up in a family that did not attach much value to his basic needs and wants his impulse to express his true feelings would tend to be suppressed.
Likewise, if a child is mocked when he does express himself or accused of being selfish repeatedly then he learns that it is not acceptable to want or need things. Under those circumstances the child will likely discontinue trying to express himself for fear of losing his parent’s love.
Instead, the child suppresses his needs and wants and passively accepts whatever he believes his parent’s want. His needs and wants are still there but hidden, and he resents them for making him hide them.
His resentment turns to anger but since he cannot express anger without dire consequences, he learns to satisfy that anger by acting out or behaving in a passive-aggressive manner. He is then secretly getting his revenge on his parents without risking rejection.
Of course this method of dealing with repressed feelings becomes highly dysfunctional when the child grows to adulthood and partners with someone. Unless the person is willing to look at themselves, primarily with the aid of psychotherapy, they may not be able to break away from their old defective style of coping and create a healthier one.
What to Look For
The intense connections people develop with their love partners can resemble the connections they experienced in their family of origin.
Therefore, the passive-aggressive adult may begin to feel similar feelings in his love relationship as he did with his own family. As time goes on his behavior may become more pronounced and create frustration for his partner.
Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior:
What follows are some of the many indicators for you to look for:
Unacceptable poor performance: The passive-aggressive partner agrees to do something, actually does it, but carries out the task in such a manner as to be completely unacceptable.
An example might be watching the children while the other partner goes to dinner with friends. The passive-aggressive partner watches the children but “forgets” to diaper the baby, causing the baby to need special attention when the other partner returns home.
Another example might be cleaning the dishes, but not doing an even minimally acceptable job, causing the other partner to either redo them or argue.
Delaying compliance: Here the passive-aggressive partner seemingly agrees with a request but delays actually doing it. This delay is sometimes explained by arguing that he will “do it on their own timetable” despite the fact that the task may be simple or needs to be completed more quickly.
Intentionally causing conflict: In this case the passive-aggressive partner intentionally does not act thereby creating a problem that was easily foreseeable. He will then deny that that was the intention and claim that the result, which causes his partner frustration, anger and resentment, was really not his fault.
An example of this might be non-payment of an important bill that could potentially result in devaluation of the credit score of the partner.
Vengeful behavior: Here the passive-aggressive partner is unable or unwilling to either accept blame, or express anger so behaves in a hidden but vengeful way.
An example might be that as a result of an argument that took place a couple of days before, the passive-aggressive spouse arrives an hour late picking up his partner at the train station. When he arrives he is ready with an excuse about traffic, car problems or the delay of the babysitter.
Everyone is Mistaken: To deflect attention from the passive-aggressive behavior that has become clear to his partner and others who know him, the passive-aggressive person will likely claim that people are mistaken about his behavior. He will assert that the interpretations being made about his behavior are wrong and that his intentions were always honest and true.
How to Handle His Passive-Aggressive Behavior
It is important to remember that passive-aggressive behavior is driven by the person’s fear that things could get even worse, despite his behavior, if his partner knew about his anger. Therefore he insists that he is not angry or resentful.
Passive-aggressive behavior can be changed. It is not simply about confronting it when it shows up, but helping the person to understand that he is loved and that you are willing to work with him to change.
Treatment can be very effective if the passive-aggressive person is willing to learn how and why to deconstruct their dysfunctional patterns of behavior.
The person is helped to understand the benefits of being authentic in an adult relationship and recognize that they will not lose the love of their partner because they express themselves truthfully.
In fact, they will help to create a better relationship by learning to speak the truth despite fearing the consequences.
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About the Author
Dr. Stan Hyman is a licensed psychotherapist and life coach in private practice in Miami, Florida. He works with couples struggling with powerful issues such as infidelity, careers and intimacy. He also specializes in treating addictions, anger, anxiety, stress, depression and work life balance.