Behavior: Strategies for Responding to a Passive Aggressive Spouse


Black couple looking at each other, sitting apart on a red couch It’s Saturday morning. You sweetly ask your husband to hang this year’s family photo on the wall lining the staircase. He, in turn, nods sweetly, affirming your request.

It’s Saturday afternoon. Your husband has not moved from the sofa since breakfast. You bring a hammer, a nail, and a tape measure from the basement and lay them all out in front of your husband, thanking him kindly for agreeing to hang the photo. You even prompt him with a little, “Remember what happened last time I tried to hang the photo in the stairwell? We had to turn our necks 90 degrees just to see everyone right side up.”

He laughs at the memory and says, “Leave it to me this time. I’ll hang it.” Meanwhile, he turns up the volume on the TV and continues to watch re-runs on the History Channel.

You feel your blood pressure rising. You want the picture hung and you’d like it on the wall before your parents visit for breakfast on Sunday. You don’t want to remind him a third time, though, for fear of sounding like a nag.

What’s going on inside your husband’s head? Simple. He is home from work and enjoying his first free Saturday in a month. He wants to sit and watch TV unbothered and feels resentful of any encroachment on his time. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to come right out and tell you his feelings, because he fears having an argument. He has learned, through years of practice, that compliant defiance, aka passive aggression, is a satisfying way to express his anger.

Indeed, by nightfall, you are fuming about his complete lack of help around the house and the fact that the photo is still un-hung. You yell. You scream. You completely lose your cool and then feel embarrassed about your loss of control. Meanwhile, your husband, still cool as a cucumber, looks at you wide-eyed and says, “Wow. You don’t need to snap at me like that. I didn’t know you wanted it hung right away. I’ll go do it now.”

With your young children just put to bed upstairs, he begins an exaggerated process of yelling down the stairs to you about proper photo frame placement. Then, he noisily hammers into the wall. The children awaken and you are ready to explode for the second time that evening. With an angry smile, your husband politely asks, “Anything else, dear?”

Ways to Help You Respond More Effectively

If this encounter sounds all-too-familiar, consider these three strategies for responding more effectively to passive aggressive behavior in your marriage:

Recognize the Warning Signs

One of the greatest dangers that passive aggression poses to a relationship is how the targeted person becomes emotionally flooded and worn down before they even realize that passive aggressive dynamics are in play. The ability to recognize passive aggressive behaviors as they are occurring is critical to disengaging from the conflict and to avoid becoming a naïve and unwitting victim of a person’s predictable and destructive way of engaging you. The most common passive aggressive behaviors include:

  • Procrastination
  • Sulking & the silent treatment
  • Intentional Inefficiency (Performing tasks to unacceptable standards)
  • Excessive excuses & feigned misunderstanding
  • Shutting down conversations with "Fine" and "Whatever."

Make Friends With Your Anger

Responding effectively to passive aggressive behavior in a relationship requires the ability to acknowledge and own the feelings of anger that a spouse's passive aggression creates. Self-awareness and self-talk are essential to managing your responses to passive aggressive behavior. As in the example above, if you ask a spouse to do a favor and he verbally agrees but behaviorally delays, you probably will ask him again. But if you have to ask a third time, you should immediately consider that passive aggressive dynamics may be in play. Say to yourself:

I have a feeling this may be passive aggressive behavior. He wants me to get angry and yell, so it will end up being my problem and not his. I will not participate in this unproductive passive aggressive conflict cycle. I know what is behind his procrastination and intentional inefficiency. It is his feelings of anger and resentment that he is unwilling to express to me openly.

State Requests Clearly

In the picture hanging example, while the wife knew that she wanted the picture hung before her parents’ arrival early the next day, she never specifically stated this in her multiple requests to her husband. In her mind, the time frame was obvious, but the unspoken message gave her husband a loophole for feigning misunderstanding—a classic passive aggressive technique. The skill of managing this type of passive aggressive behavior is to set specific expectations, including time frames, for any request. Never assume that a passive aggressive person understands your needs. Even if the task is a routine one that has been carried out many times in the past, this ounce of prevention is worth every penny of a cure for passive aggressive behavior.  Use care not to allow sarcasm or condescension in your voice as you detail the request. Rather, make your expectations as clear as possible in a neutral, assertive tone.

Unchecked, 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.

Have you ever had to deal with passive aggressive behavior? How did you respond? What ways have helped you to respond more effectively?

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker with excellent advice and much knowledge of passive aggression.  Signe is also the Chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute.  You can find Signe’s wonderful advice at My Baby Clothes Boutique, a company that works deligentily to give parents what they want.  You can find your little ones spring baby clothes, playful tutus and cute baby headbands.

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9 responses to “Behavior: Strategies for Responding to a Passive Aggressive Spouse”

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. Rebecca C. says:

    So I had almost this exact scenario play out. It wasn’t a picture, it was putting the last two knobs on kitchen drawers. I had the knobs bought about six months ago, and he never got around to it. Finally I had the drill and bits out for some reason, so I went and got the extra tool for placement of the knobs and the knobs themselves. I marked the placement of the knobs. All I wanted him to do was drill the holes (four of them). It was a big fight. When he finally did it, he made a big dramatic scene about how one hole didn’t work, etc. He had been telling me that it wouldn’t work to put the knobs there in the first place, something about there not being room to put a full length screw driver to tighten the screws. I suggested holding a small drill bit to tighten the screws. Everything I did was shot down. Of course, when he was forced into it, it worked just fine, just as I said. In the course of this fight I was the one upset, and I was the one insulted, told I needed to think like an engineer, etc. So what should I have done? Waited until my death bed and asked him to put the knobs on then? Do it myself? This is a small example of the things he is holding us back from because of his passive aggressiveness. I can’t find any practical solutions on how to deal with it and still have my life be able to move forward, even in something as simple as finishing the knobs in the kitchen. I am so frustrated that I am posting this on a year old article!

  3. Vikki R says:

    Holy cow, do I ever deal with this. My issue has to do with my boyfriend of 6 years and the water bill. I ask that we try to do laundry at the same time, take shorter showers, don’t leave the water running while you are brushing your teeth/shaving. Don’t leave the water continuously running while doing the dishes. Don’t leave the water running and then walk away to go look at something outside. I have asked nicely not once, not twice, not three times. by the forth time I become angrier. The fifth time, I am so angry and I ask why is it so hard to understand? He used to never be this way. It is becoming so bad that he does it while I am standing there and I can feel my blood pressure rise. it is not just the water bill lately. It is everything that I ask or suggest. He turns right around and does the exactly what he is going to do! He is 50 years old! No compromise. Not sure how to deal with this. As I mentioned earlier, I ask nicely and state why I am making the request and then when we do get into an argument, he starts with a subtle threat “Well, I pay the rent around here…” and then goes into the tit for tat game. The agreement is he pays the rent, I pay ALL of the utilities, clean the house, do the shopping, do some of the cooking. I don’t ask him for any money. What is a person to do?

  4. colorfunch says:

    Wow! you must be living in my house, this is what I am going thru now. He says I cannot control my anger but he is the one that drives me nuts with his passivity and procastination and then I look bad when I complain

    I am working on managing my emotion now and always having a plan b with my requests to him

  5. heyhotmess says:

    Thanks for your responses, ladies. I hope these posts have been helpful to you!

  6. Phila says:

    wow! yo…. u wonder if u r living with a little devil whose main mission is to get u insane!

  7. Big momma says:

    Thank you for this well written article. I shared it with my husband last night during an open and pre agreed upon “calm” discussion. He agreed that this does sound like many of our days. That was an opening for us to discuss ” do we want our marriage to be better?” and “what can both of us do to break these cycles” ? My husband made breakfast this morning and thanked me for having the talk last night. I hope this is a turning point.

  8. Anonymous says:

    An analysis of 10 house price surveys shows that estimates of average prices on a national level vary from ?154,300 to ?252,881. They put the average price of a London home between ?300,800 and nearly ?500,000.

  9. Sujatha says:

    I am seeing a counsellor and a therapist to know how to handle passive aggressive husband ,I think,they should not be yelled at,AT ALL,counsellors,prayers should work and if everything fails,only then one should leave them, never leave without trying everything,because they have a problem

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