Behavior: Ways to Effectively Communicate With a Passive Aggressive Person


One of my favorite stories about passive aggressive behavior in a marriage goes like this:

“Cash, check or charge?" I asked, after folding the items the woman wished to purchase. As she fumbled for her wallet, I noticed a remote control for a television set in her purse. "So, do you always carry your TV remote?" I asked. "No," she replied, "but my husband refused to go shopping with me and I figured this was the most evil thing I could do to him legally."

In relationships, passive aggressive behaviors are often used to avoid the direct confrontation of short-term conflict, but in the long-term, these dynamics can be even more destructive to marriage than outright aggression. To keep assertive communication flowing in your relationship, here are four strategies to effectively confront passive aggressive behavior:

Ways to Effectively Confront Passive Aggressive Behavior

Recognize the Warning Signs of Passive Aggression Behavior

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger (Long, Long & Whitson, 2009). This “sugarcoated hostility” involves a variety of behaviors designed to get back at another person without the other recognizing the underlying anger. When a person is able to quickly identify hallmark passive aggressive behaviors for what they are—hidden expressions of anger—they take the first critical step in disengaging from the destructive dynamic. Some of the most common passive aggressive behaviors to be aware of include:

  • Procrastination
  • Behaving beneath customary standards
  • Pretending not to see, hear, remember, or understand requests
  • The silent treatment
  • Sulking & withdrawal
  • Gossiping

Refuse to Engage

Passive aggressive adults are experts at getting others to act out their hidden anger. The skill of recognizing passive aggressive behaviors at face value allows you to be forewarned and to make a choice not to become entangled in a no-win power struggle. When you sense these destructive dynamics coming into play, manage your own emotions through such self-talk statements as:

  • “He is being passive aggressive and I will not participate in this routine.”
  • “I will not yell or become sarcastic because this behavior will only escalate the conflict.”

Point Out the Elephant in the Room

Passive aggressive persons spend their lives avoiding direct emotional expression and guarding against open acknowledgment of their anger. One of the most powerful ways to confront passive aggressive dynamics and change the behavior in the long-term, then, is to be willing to point out anger directly, when it is present in a situation. Anger should be affirmed in a factual, non-judgmental way, such as, “It seems to me that you are angry at me for making this request.” The impact of this seemingly simple exposure can be quite profound.

Expect & Accept Denial

Your goal is to make overt the anger that has been covert, stuffed inside, and kept secret for so long. Expect that once this has been done, the passive aggressive person will deny the existence of anger.

When he does, you should verbally accept the defenses for the time being, with a response such as, “Okay! It was just a thought I wanted to share with you.” Don’t argue or correct the person’s denial at this time, but rather quietly back away from further discussion, leaving your spouse with the thought that you are aware there are some feelings of anger behind his behavior. The advantage of this approach is the comfort of not having to justify or defend your acknowledgement of the anger. By simply sharing your awareness of his covert anger, you have sent a bold and powerful message that the passive aggressive behavior cannot continue and the relationship needs to change.

Passive aggressive behavior can wreak havoc on relationships, marriages and families. For more strategies and techniques to effectively confront passive aggressive behavior, check out The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd ed. Read more about how to respond to a passive aggressive spouse here.

Have you ever had to confront a person with passive aggressive behavior? How did you go about doing so? What ways have helped you to confront a person with this type of behavior more effectively?

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and Chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute.  As a mom of two daughters, she shares her knowledge and expertise with other parents on her blog and for My Baby Clothes Boutique.  Come see the fabulous spring collection of baby clothes, baby hats and baby headbands.

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