Your Indirect Fighting Style might be Deadly: The problem of passive aggressives

David Olsen, Ph.D., LCSW and Erin Belanger, LMHC

In our last two newsletters, we described two styles of handling conflict. First, there are the conflict avoiders, who attempt to keep their relationship stable by avoiding conflict. In the end, they have tepidly polite relationships, and no passion.  

Second, we described the brawlers, who act like street fighters with their no-holds-barred conflict. Understandably, this conflict style results in great damage to each person and to the relationship. To move toward a healthier relationship and greater intimacy, the conflict avoiders need to open up conflict by moving toward it. The brawlers, on the other hand, need to use ground rules with each other to keep conflict from becoming corrosive.

Still, there is a third conflict style seen in the following interaction: Mary calmly said to her husband George, “You seem angry,” to which George replied, “I’m fine. I’m not angry at all.” George promised his wife he would be willing to talk later, but then “forgot” and fell asleep watching TV. When Mary confronted him the next morning, he replied defensively “Give me a break! I’m exhausted and simply fell asleep,” but then he ignored her for several days.

Welcome to the world of the passive aggressives! These couples are beyond difficult to deal with and are rarely able to resolve conflicts. There are similarities between the passive aggressives and the conflict avoiders, but the distinguishing mark of a passive aggressive is that they are very angry at their partners. Unfortunately, their anger comes out indirectly by “forgetting” that they were going to watch a movie, or falling asleep when they were going to talk, or by losing interest in sex. They procrastinate, or often run late. They withhold affection and they engage in sarcasm and pretend it’s humor.

Passive aggressives have a number of key phrases including “I’m not angry”, “Ok - Fine!”, “I was only joking”, “Don’t be so sensitive”, or “Don’t worry, I’ll get to it later.” Because passive aggressives refuse to admit to their anger, they make their partners feel as if they are the only ones with the problem. Worse still, when their partner gets angry, they act confused. It can truly be crazy making!

Ultimately, this style is a way to cover deep hostility, while at the same time avoiding dealing with the anger. Instead, they deny the anger to themselves and to their partners, and then “passively” punish their partners who feel like they are going crazy. This style represents a deep fear of conflict, and even of one’s own anger. Passive aggressives can be quite punitive, and, in the end, they have a deadly way of handling conflict.

Uh oh… this is me… now what??

Change begins with self awareness!  Frequently, this conflict style is favored by those who grew up in chaotic or even violent families where anger could not be addressed directly without severe consequences. As a result, they found ways of expressing their anger passively because it was their only option. As adults, this fear of conflict is no longer protective, but damaging to very important relationships. This means that passive aggressives will need to learn to face the conflict with healthy assertiveness skills so they can begin to recognize that anger is not dangerous.

Next, they need to become more clear about what they want and need, and then learn assertiveness skills that allow them to be clear in a healthy way. For example, when your partner asks if you will finish the project tomorrow, don’t say “sure” and then “forget”; instead, think about whether that is realistic and then respond. Be honest and risk the conflict that might occur by saying you can’t do it tomorrow - “Tomorrow is very busy, but I will get to it next weekend when things settle down.”  Make sure, of course, that you don’t say this unless you are truly going to do it.

Finally, if you believe your partner is being passive aggressive, the worst thing you can do is label it as such. “You are so passive aggressive!” is never helpful. Rather, be very specific with your frustration.  “When you promised me we could talk last night, and fell asleep, it hurt me deeply. I’m very disappointed.” After that, STOP and leave it there. The best and most healthy way to confront this is to: 1)  name specific behaviors, 2) describe how they made you feel, and 3) leave it.  Don’t label, and don’t attack; that will only make things worse.

In then end, this is a communication style rooted in fear of anger and fear of conflict. Address the root causes, have honest conversations about the real issues, and if you get stuck, consult one of our relationship experts.