Habits: Signs of Passive Aggressive Behavior in a Marriage


My friend and neighbor shared this great story on my Blog about the last time (the final time?) her husband agreed to do the family’s grocery shopping:

Man in a grocery store with a shopping cart I typically do all of the food shopping for my family. My husband appreciates this, as food shopping is one of his LEAST favorite domestic duties. As much as I try to avoid asking him to do it, there have been occasions when there was no other alternative.... so he reluctantly walks out the door, reusable grocery bags in-hand, and what does he come home with after an hour at the food store? (Keep in mind, I give him a very specific list.) After I sort through the 4 bags of chips and various other snack foods, I get the following: I asked for rice milk, he bought soy milk; I asked for swiss cheese, he bought American; I asked for wheat bread, he bought Texas Toast; I asked for whole wheat pancakes, he bought 4 boxes of Pop Tarts (OK! Who doesn't love Pop Tarts? But do they replace whole wheat pancakes? No.) The list goes on, but you get the point. Needless to say, I no longer ask him to go food shopping. I just don’t have enough room in my pantry for more pop tarts.

When I think of this friend and her husband, I think “happy couple.” The woman is, in fact, my role model for honest, assertive communication. Yet, even in the healthiest relationships, a little passive aggression always seems to fall in. Why does compliant defiance thrive in most marriages? Here are two subversive reasons:

Passive Aggressive Behavior Is the Path to Least Resistance

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing covert feelings of anger. The chronically passive aggression person expresses anger through such indirect means as procrastination, sulking, “forgetting” and intentional inefficiency across most situations, almost all of the time.  et even those who are normally honest and direct in their dealings may choose to behave in passive aggressive ways at certain times.

In marriages, husbands and wives often use passive aggressive behavior as the path of least resistance. In other words, a person wants to say “no” to a request, but realizes that doing so will likely result in an immediate disagreement or confrontation. To avoid the temporary unpleasantness, a partner verbally agrees to a request but behaviorally delays its completion or—more crafty yet—carries out the task according to unacceptable standards (e.g. Pop Tart excess) in hopes of not being asked to carry out the request in the future. Fortunately, situation-specific passive aggressive behavior in a marriage, though infuriating in the moment, is usually quite manageable when confronted directly and consistently.

Passive Aggressive Behavior Is a Habit

For some, passive aggressive behavior is not just a situational choice, but rather a deeply ingrained personality type. When a child is raised in an environment in which the expression of angry feelings is not tolerated, he learns to use indirect, passive aggressive means to express himself.  In marriage, this adult child overgeneralizes and responds to his spouse as if she were the parent who stifled his emotional expression. Genuinely-loved partners become undeserving targets of ingrained passive aggressive habits and are especially hurt, confused, and frustrated to receive it. The relationship is often brought to the boiling point.

Another aspect that makes passive aggression particularly toxic in a marriage is how it is modeled to the next generation. Children of passive aggressive parents learn the indirect expression of anger as a way of life. They grow up with the belief that “anger = bad” and that hiding anger is the right, healthy, proper thing to do. Chronic passive aggression can be just as damaging to a marriage and family as outward aggression and requires focused efforts at long-term behavioral change.

Whether situational or chronic, unchecked passive aggressive behavior can wreak havoc on marriages and families.  For 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.

Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and is the Chief Operating Officer of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute.  She also writes for My Baby Clothes Boutique where you can shop for the most beautiful spring baby clothes, tutus with matching headbands and baby hats.
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7 responses to “Habits: Signs of Passive Aggressive Behavior in a Marriage”

  1. Sunnie says:

    I found your post via a Google search on passive aggressive behaviours in a marriage.

    I had been divorced for 12 years when I married again recently; I’m 54, my new husband is 52. I got to know my husband on an online current events forum, I travelled to his country to spend time with him in person, so I knew when I married him he had some passive aggressive tendencies, lol, but on occasion the behaviours can be very difficult to cope with. I am a direct person-if he has a problem with a request he needs to tell me. He doesn’t see it that way, and I have found myself letting him get away with passive aggressive behaviours. I don’t like that about myself.

    He was raised in an unhappy, covertly angry home by a single mother. He left at the age of 16 and didn’t go back until she was dying.

    I’m not going to give up on him, I love him. But I am going to make sure I stay strong in my own sense of self and worth, or he will inadvertently shred me. Thank-you for the post, and the links.


  2. Sandy says:

    Dear Sunnie,
    I read your posting and found it ineteresting. I too am living with a man who I believe has passive-aggressive behavior. He refuses to acknowledge his behavior and it’s only gotten worse. After 27 years I fear I cannot go on in my marriage. I would love to hea from someone who has tackled this problem sucessfully.

  3. Annette says:

    This describes my husband perfectly. I have had a very frustrating 20 year marriage to this man. I rerpeatedly deal and say the same things, actions never change and the blame is always on me. We are currently on the verge of divorce.

  4. Rachel says:

    I am facing a similar issue with my husband.Just that we have been married for 3 years now and I am unable to tolerate this passive-aggressive beahiviour any longer.I prefer talking straight and dealing with things. It has taken me so long to even identify this.
    Any successful suggestions, please let me know

  5. Melissa says:

    I am in month two of my divorce from the PA husband of 17 years. All this time I thought that I was this monster that was never satisfied with him, that my anger was because I was messed-up. I didn’t realize that he was playing a game with me. I would beg him to open-up and when he would it was usually when he was drunk and we were having an argument. If I didn’t repsond to his liking he would say “see, you don’t really want to know, hear or see what you do or say about you that bothers me..” I felt crazy for a long time and very unsure of myself as a person.
    Now that the divorce is proceeding I am beginning to see more and more of how he manipulated me in our marriage. Now that I don’t have to walk on eggshells or be careful in what I say I see that I have been held hostage in my marriage, by him and myself.
    Its going to be a long road to recover from this abuse but I will take it one step at a time.
    For those contemplating divorce, I suggest reading as much as possible about PA’s. They won’t change unless they are willing and there will be years and years of hardwork and therapy. Ask yourself, are you willing to stick around while they heal? What if they start then stop? What would be your firm boundries? My PA promised that he would seek treatment, do better etc… he didn’t seek it for himself (he went for about 4 months total then just up and quit saying he wasn’t getting anything out of it.) When I would pull away from him he would promise me the therapy moon. This last time didn’t work! I had had too much lip service.
    So trust that little voice in yourself when it is screaming at you. Divorcing a PA won’t be easy but staying in a relationship with one is even harder.

  6. Thank you so much for this article, Signe. It was very helpful.

  7. Divorced from PA says:

    The worst impact, and this is what PA behaviour is designed to do, is that when you point out what the person has done, they claim their innocence and blame you for being mean to them. When you get angry at them, they don’t respond at all, so you look like the aggressor. All this focuses blame on you, and you feel horrible about yourself too. You cannot prove that they are guilty but it happens continuously and you feel there is no escape apart from genuinely getting away from the person, which must be what they ultimately desire.

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