People who are passive-aggressive do express anger and frustration, but they do in subtle, covert ways. If you have a partner like this, their underlying anger probably gets projected onto you, leading you to feel increasingly frustrated.
Here are some tips that will help you cope with dealing with passive aggressive people, and hopefully get them on the road to more effective interpersonal communication strategies.
1. Know how to identify passive-aggression
Concrete examples of behavior will help you to identify true passive-aggression. Ask yourself whether your partner often gives you the silent treatment, refuses to praise you, withholds intimacy, criticizes you (framing it as “help”), uses offensive but ambiguous language, refuses to do reasonable things asked of them, or even deliberately sabotage you. If this picture sounds familiar, then you’re dealing with passive aggressive people.
2. Don’t fall for the claim that the anger is all yours
Your partner may ask you why you’re so annoyed, suggesting that all of this negative emotion comes from you. Many will genuinely not realize that they deliberately elicit this anger in others in order to ensure that it gets expressed, so your partner might not be consciously manipulating you. Regardless, it’s important that you avoid getting pushed into “owning” all of this anger—passive-aggressive behaviors are hostile and must be recognized as such.
3. Stay composed
As well as knowing that not all of the anger you feel really belongs to you, try to stay calm when you deal with your partner—being emotionally reactive simply fuels the passive-aggressive fire. What your partner wants (at least subconsciously) is for you to get visibly angry, so that they can continue to play the victim role.
4. Don’t be a parent
Many passive-aggressive behaviors have their roots in childhood, so your partner may be reenacting old dramas while putting you in the role of parent. Refuse to step into this role—don’t nag or scold your partner, and don’t adopt all the household responsibilities if your partner slacks off or ignores reasonable requests. You need to see each other as two adults—rather than adult and child—if a satisfying romantic relationship is to be sustained.
5. Have a careful discussion about how you feel
When you’re ready to talk about your concerns with your partner, don’t make a general accusation (e.g. “You’re always X”). Instead, use a specific example of behavior you’ve found difficult, and explain why it is hurtful. For those passive-aggressive people who merely have maladaptive communication strategies and are not consciously trying to control you, learning just how sad or confused you feel can be very powerful. However, passive-aggressive partners who veer towards the emotionally abusive end of the spectrum may simply deny your “right” to feel hurt, or try to find a way to blame you.
6. Be assertive
The healthy middle ground between being passive and aggressive is being assertive, so model this behavior for your partner (and use it to try and steer conversations in a more productive direction). So, when you’re outlining your difficulties, state them clearly and non-judgmentally—think “this behavior is causing a problem in our relationship” (assertive) as opposed to “you are the problem in our relationship” (aggressive) or “I’m sure this is probably my fault” (passive).
7. See a therapist who specializes in relationships
It’s often too difficult for a couple to overcome passive-aggression without outside help, especially if its an entrenched way of acting. However, even just a few sessions with a relationship counselor could help you increase self-knowledge and acquire new, more effective communication skills. In addition, remember that you can see a therapist alone if your partner is unwilling to participate—these sessions can help you learn how to deal with your loved one’s passive-aggressive behaviors without becoming overwhelmed by anger.
8. Encourage work on your partner’s self-esteem
The bulk of passive-aggressive partners have low self-esteem, and many are ashamed of their emotions. Consequently, some of the most positive strategies for reducing passive-aggression involve helping to boost your partner’s confidence. Notice times when a meaningful compliment or acknowledgment of their contributions would make them feel good, and encourage them to take part in activities that increase independence and self-esteem (e.g. pursuit of hobbies, fitness routines, and creative self-expression).
9. Try to understand
People become passive-aggressive for a reason, and your relationship can become closer and healthier if your partner is willing to explore how their personal history has shaped their current behaviors. These conversations work best if they’re reciprocal, and you’re willing to take a critical look at your own difficulties as well. Once again, this type of exploration might be better conducted with a therapist, but some couples can engage with it at home.
10. Be prepared to leave
Unfortunately, not every relationship with a passive-aggressive partner can be salvaged. Unacknowledged passive-aggression can wear down your mental health and self-esteem, so don’t stay with someone who is unwilling to work towards positive change or see how their behavior impacts you.