One of the hardest patterns of behavior for all of us to deal with is passive aggression. Passive aggressive behavior happens when the person attempts to control others in a more subtle way than direct aggression. As in most controlling behaviours, it is often born of low self esteem, fear of being controlled, fear of confrontation, hidden anger and an inability to communicate with people.
Passive aggressive behavior is complex and takes many forms. We all hedge, fudge and remain noncommittal on issues from time to time. That’s normal. But when it is a continued behaviour then it can be come a major problem. Typical examples are:
What all of these people have in common is that the significant people in their life become very angry and confused at this resistant behavior. The negative behaviour then leads to a cycle of conflict, with the other person then getting the blame for being confrontational.
As with most behaviours, they often can be tied back to learnt behaviours in childhood. For example a domineering mother and a father who is ineffectual, or a passive mother who gets out of responsibility by her helplessness, creates a situation where the child develops behaviours for self protection. If the parents are in conflict, the child has divided loyalties, and withdrawal (passive resistance/aggression) may be the only option for self protection. Alternatively a domineering or aggressive parent may also foster such behaviours.
When a child is not allowed to be heard, or is never able to get their way by direct confrontation and/or competition, they learn to displace their anger through resistance. Consequently they will learn to use charm, stubbornness, resistance and withdrawal to protect themselves in power struggles. They often will rebel by becoming moody, being an underachiever or developing behavior problems. This self protectiveness and duplicity from the squelched anger and hostility becomes a habit that they play out with their partners in later life. For example, a man will desperately seek a woman to meet his needs of being accepted for who he is, while controlling them with continual and sometimes subtle acts of control. As a relationship develops and the wife becomes more resistant or ‘strong’, behaviours that are subtle to start with may often lead to more outward aggression – either passive or in other cases, physical.
Agreement, Resistance and Hidden Hostility as Major Characteristics
Adults so often replay the distancing drama of their original family in their own adult relationships.
The man with passive aggressive behavior needs someone to be the object of his hidden hostility. He needs an adversary whose expectations and demands he can resist as he plays out the dance he learned from his parents. He chooses a woman who will agree to be on the receiving end of his disowned anger. He resists her in small ways setting up a pattern of frustration so that she gets to express the anger that he cannot.
The biggest irritant in being with a passive aggressive man is that he doesn’t follow through on his agreements and promises. He dodges responsibility while insisting he’s pulling his weight. He procrastinates, takes on big projects but doesn’t finish them then feels put upon or hostile if someone else tries to finish it. He often ignores reality as to his irresponsibility and withdrawal. He denies evidence, distorts minimises or lies to make his version of reality seem logical.
He uses vague language to sandbag the partner. Inconsistency and ambiguity are his tools of choice. He often gives double messages and expects his partner to read his mind and meet his needs saying ‘She should have known how it is.’ He withholds information and has a hidden agenda. He can’t take criticism and makes excuses to get himself off the hook. He sulks and uses silence when confronted about his inability to live up to his promises, obligations or responsibilities. When he doesn’t follow through, he puts the blame on his partner so he doesn’t have to take it and accuses her of having the problem.
The man with this type of pattern shows little consideration of the time, feelings, standards or needs of others. He obstructs and block progress to others getting what they want and then ignores or minimises their dissatisfactions and anger. He is silent when confronted as he has never learned to compromise. He may be a workaholic, a womanizer, hooked on TV, caught in addictions or self-involved hobbies.
He has such strong fears of intimacy deep in his unconscious mind so he must set barriers up to prevent a deep emotional connection. He is clever at derailing intimacy when it comes up by tuning out his partner and changing the subject. He must withhold part of himself to feel safe and may withdraw sexually. Closeness and intimacy during sex may make him feel vulnerable and panicked bringing forth his deepest fears of dependency upon a woman. The passive aggressive man lives an internal loneliness; he wants to be with the woman but stays confused whether she is the right partner for him or not. He is scared and insecure causing him to seek contact with a partner but scared and insecure to fully commit.
Due to the wounding from childhood, he is unable to trust that he is safe within the relationship. He fears revealing himself and can’t share feelings. His refusal to express feelings keeps him from experiencing his sense of insecurity and vulnerability. He often denies feelings like love that might trap him into true connection with another human being. He feels rejected and hurt when things don’t go his way but can’t distinguish between feeling rejected and being rejected. He pushes people away first so he won’t be rejected. He is often irritable and uses low-level hostility to create distance at home. The relationship becomes based on keeping the partner at bay. He often sets up experiences to get others to reject or deprive him. He is noncommittal and retreats, feeling put upon and burdened by partner’s requests for more closeness. He becomes a cave dweller to feel safe.
The man with passive aggressive actions is a master in getting his partner to doubt herself and feel guilty for questioning or confronting him. He encourages her to fall for his apologies, accept his excuses and focus on his charm rather than deal with the issue directly. He blames her for creating the problem and keeps her focused on her anger rather than his own ineptitude. When backed into a corner, he may explode and switch to aggressive aggressive behavior then switch back to passivity. He keeps his partner held hostage by the hope that he will change. He may appease her and clean up his act after a blow up for several weeks, then it’s back to business as usual.