Dealing With Passive-Aggression in a Relationship: A Guide to Survive

All of us have at least one passive-aggressive person in our life. Maybe it is your picky mother-in-law, or your demanding boss, or even your overly sarcastic partner. You may be surprised to learn from reading this post that even you have moments of passive aggression. Take heart; you can learn to avoid those tendencies in yourself as well as deal with passive-aggression from the people in your life. Here’s how.

Passive aggressive behavior is when someone says or does something that on the surface seems innocuous, or even kind, but there is a hidden motive that is negative. Passive-aggressive people may blame others, feel resentful, resist suggestions, and avoid responsibility.  They struggle to communicate their feelings and needs. The passive-aggressive person represses his or her anger and is unaware of the hostility he or she may feel or conveys. Passive-aggressive people feel misunderstood, are sensitive to criticism, and drive others crazy.  The passive-aggressive partner is often difficult to be around; sulking, backhanded compliments, procrastination, withdrawal, and refusal to communicate are a few of the most common signs you may observe.

Okay, so you have identified someone in your life as someone who can be passive aggressive at times. Now what? Here are some tips (although the majority of these are directed toward partners, they can be applied to any and all relationships with someone acting passive-aggressive, including yourself):

  1. Stay calm. It can be difficult, but work to not react to your passive-aggressive partner.  Remain calm, notice what your partner is doing, recognize your anger triggers, and be proactive to avoid falling into a pattern of expecting something that never happens.
  2. Mind your words. When you nag, scold, or get angry, you escalate conflict and give your partner more excuses and ammunition to deny responsibility. You also step into the role of parent – the very one your partner is rebelling against. Do not be vague, drop hints, blame, or allow yourself to pay-back (for these are also passive-aggressive behaviors). Be careful to not label your partner as “passive-aggressive,” instead tell them what behaviors make it hard for you to connect with them. .
  3. Be direct. The best way to deal with a passive-aggressive partner is to actively assert your own needs and feelings in a clear way. Be factual, state your feelings clearly, use “I” statements, avoid emotional words.  
  4. Do not enable.  When you fail to hold a passive-aggressive person accountable for their actions, you unintentionally perpetuate their behavior. The remedy here is to hold your partner accountable for his/her actions. Help them follow-through. 
  5. Apologies are not pretzels. Meaning you do not need to hand them out freely. If your boss drops a passive-aggressive comment about you leaving at 5:30, instead of apologizing (unnecessarily) and giving a reason, keep your apology to yourself and ask if you are needed to stay late. 
  6. Speak up. This step will be hard for the  people-pleasers out there. At times, self-preservation from a passive-aggressive individual will require you to speak up. Instead of letting the passive-aggressive person in your life dictate when you have a dinner party, for example, you decide when the party works best for you. If the time you choose is inconvenient for the passive-aggressive acquaintance, encourage them to let you know their needs and their alternative solution; do not do it for them or stay silent yourself.
  7. Control your part. The only person you can control is yourself, so do not take it upon yourself to cure this passive-aggressive person you know.  Manage your own life and avoid getting manipulated. If you find it hard to spend great lengths of time with this person, limit your contact. Practice self-care and surround yourself with people who lift you up and bring light to your life. 

One important disclaimer: It is important to understand that more often than not, the person who is being passive-aggressive is doing so unconsciously; they are unaware that they are being manipulative and unkind. There are, of course, others who are purposefully passive-aggressive, and they are more commonly referred to as manipulative.

If you are a victim of passive-aggressive behavior, you are likely left feeling hurt, confused, wronged, unappreciated, unimportant, and maybe even guilty for feeling that way. If this is you, I advise you to put the steps above into action. Take care of yourself. If it is possible to have a direct conversation with the person affecting you, do so. And if you need professional assistance, please remember that my door is always open. While you may feel like you have no power to change things, stay calm and remember that you can speak up and not enable their behavior. You do not have to be a victim of passive-aggression anymore.   

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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On Love and Affection: When PDA is Okay

“A healthy amount of PDA allows the couple to express their affection to each other, and also to the world. Best practices include using ‘on and off switches.’ Continual PDA loses its importance, and makes others uncomfortable.” ~ Susan Winter

How do you feel about public displays of affection? Are you the type of person that loves snuggling, holding hands or kissing your lover, no matter where you are and who might be watching? Or does the mere thought of holding hands in public give you actual anxiety? Odds are that you fall somewhere in the middle. It is completely natural and okay to want to be affectionate with someone you love. In fact, when you cuddle with someone you care about, oxytocin–the hormone that fosters feelings of love, bonding, and connection–is secreted, thus earning its nickname as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone. But even though PDA is normal and feels good, just keep in mind that there is a time, a place, and a limit for what is appropriate!

Falling in love is wonderful. When it happens, you may want the world to know. At the beginning of a romantic relationship, you are likely to always hold hands and exchanging loving glances. Most onlookers will admire your newfound love fondly. I have written before about how all human beings have an innate need to be loved and have meaningful physical interactions with others.  But there is such a thing as too much of a public display of affection while anyone/everyone is watching. Here is a safe, and slightly humorous, rule of thumb: Ask yourself if your grandmother would approve. 

Let’s talk about the specific ways to display affection and whether or not they are appropriate in public:

  • Kissing. There are certain times it is completely okay to kiss the person you love–such as when you are greeting someone or saying goodbye. However, long, drawn-out kissing in front of others can make them feel like they are involuntarily watching a scene from a RomCom. 
  • Touching. The resources at the end of this post were unanimous in saying that it is always okay to hold hands with someone. An arm draped around someone is okay when you are sitting or casually strolling through the park. It is never okay to touch anyone in a private area in public.
  • Groping. Groping is never acceptable in public. Certain gestures are even illegal in public.
  • Tasting and nibbling. Reminder: Your face is not a lollipop, and you are not a vampire, so experts kindly ask you to refrain from licking or biting the person you love in front of others.
  • Electronic Affection. You should never text, post, or communicate anything intimately personal in a public forum or on any social media platform. Not only can this make others uncomfortable, but you may also embarrass the person you love.

PDA is commonplace in many places –like during your engagement or wedding day, at farewells and homecomings, at the airport when one is about to be deployed, at the movies (especially romantic ones), on the dance floor, and when the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. I would venture to say that if you stay within the boundaries for the above actions, PDA is welcomed pretty much anywhere. But remember to ask yourself if Grandma would approve of how you are expressing your affection!

Showing appropriate levels of PDA can be healthy for a relationship. Being affectionate in public strengthens your love, shows a level of comfort with your partner, and allows others to identify you as a unit. Additionally, if things are not perfect in your relationship, PDA might be a way to spark connection again. PDA is really an unconscious form of staying connected; a brief kiss on the cheek, a hand placed gently at the small of the back, and an exchanged glance can get the heart pounding. This might even be the healing touch that can lead to amends or forgiveness in a relationship.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention that not everyone wants to receive PDA. I have written at length about love languages (see sources below) because I believe in them. The fact is that, for some people, physical touch is the last way they communicate or receive love. For these people, touching in public may be very unwelcomed! Certain factors like personality, general comfort in public, safety, and regard for others’ feelings play a role in how someone interacts with their significant other in social situations.  I highly encourage you and your partner to openly discuss to what degree you wish to give and receive touch in public, and then to respect those wishes. That might sound counterintuitive, or even scarier than simply reaching out to hold his/her hand, but figuring out someone’s PDA comfort level is an important step toward understanding their love languages. Unwelcome touching can potentially damage a relationship and push your partner away–especially where abuse or addiction is associated with PDA. 

Even after the beginning stages of a relationship, PDA can help couples reaffirm their love and commitment to each other whether life is breezy or if it is a time of disconnect. All humans need reinforcement. If you and your partner are struggling in your relationship, please contact me to schedule a session. I am here to help. Remember that, when PDA is consensual, well-timed public displays of affection can provide a spark of hope and connection in relationships. 

Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.

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