Passive-Aggressive Behavior

by Jay Earley, PhD

Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

When Joe’s wife asks him to do something around the house, he always seems to go along and agree to do it. But it rarely happens. He forgets about it, or he does a little bit of it but doesn’t finish the job. Sometimes he does the job in a way that isn’t really what she wanted and is very frustrating for her. He feels vaguely uneasy about this, but it keeps happening. His wife, Marge, is getting increasingly angry about this. She wonders if he cares for her and feels that she can’t trust him. She has a vague feeling that he is getting back at her, but she can’t explain this. He says he just forgets, and he would really like to give her all the things she wants.

This is an example of passive-aggressive behavior. What is really going on with Joe, and with Marge? Let’s start with Joe. He has a part that is a Pleaser. This part of him really wants to make Marge happy by doing everything she asks. It is afraid of not pleasing her. It is afraid that she will become angry and judgmental, that she will withdraw from Joe and reject him. So when Marge asks Joe to do something, the Pleaser doesn’t consider whether or not he wants to do it or has the time. It automatically says “Yes.” It wants to protect Joe from the pain of being judged or rejected by Marge. And Joe isn’t aware of what is going on.

However, this is only half the story. There is another part of Joe that is a Rebel. This part has very different feelings about Marge’s requests. First of all, the Rebel doesn’t see them as requests. It feels that Marge is demanding things from him. It resents Marge for pushing Joe around and telling him what to do. And the Rebel is even more resentful when Joe gives in. It feels angry at Marge and wants to say, “No. Don’t tell me what to do. Leave me alone!” However, the Rebel is overruled by the Pleaser. It doesn’t get to defy Marge or be angry with her because the Pleaser would be terrified about what would happen. So the Rebel is pushed underground. It doesn’t get to act, and Joe doesn’t even know that he has a part like this. The Rebel is completely unconscious.

In addition, Joe has an Angry Part that has a lot of anger and rage left over from his childhood, especially directed at women. So now this anger sometimes gets directed at Marge, even when she hasn’t done anything. However, Joe has protectors that are terrified about what would happen if he expressed his anger directly, so it is hidden away, where Joe doesn’t know about it.

However, the Rebel and Angry Part are not without some power. Even though the Rebel can’t rebel directly, it can do it indirectly. Even though these parts can’t be directly aggressive the way they would like, they can be passively aggressive. They can keep Joe from giving Marge what she wants. They may make Joe forget what he has promised to do. They may make Joe do a job in a way that will frustrate Marge or even scare her. They know how to get back at Marge in an indirect way that Joe isn’t even aware of. And when Marge gets frustrated or scared, these parts feel satisfied because they have expressed their anger and rebellion. They have gotten her.

Joe has two sides that are at odds with each other. They are polarized about the best way to deal with Marge. The Pleaser takes charge directly when Marge asks him to do something, and the Rebel and Angry Part take charge indirectly later on.

Changing Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Through IFS, Joe got to know each of these parts and what they were trying to do for him. He was very surprised to learn that all this was going on beneath the surface. He connected with the Pleaser, learned about its fear, and helped it realize that he could handle Marge’s response if he didn’t always please her. He connected with the Rebel and saw how determined it was not to be controlled. He talked to this part and helped it realize that Marge wasn’t trying to control him. He also connected with the Angry Part and discovered just how angry it was at times and how this got acted out indirectly. He began to learn how to be aware of his anger and express it directly; sometimes he realized that he wasn’t actually angry at Marge at all.

Once these parts became conscious and learned to trust Joe, his pattern of passive-aggressive behavior was much easier to change. He learned to decide for himself if he wanted to do what Marge asked, or collaborate with her in deciding what should be done, rather than just feeling obliged to obey her. Then when he did agree to do a task, he was more engaged in the decision and had no trouble carrying through with it. If there was something about Marge’s attitude that was controlling, he could talk to her about this in an assertive way without being either pleasing or aggressive. He could also assert himself directly with Marge about things he wanted rather than being unconsciously angry at her, so his Angry Part didn’t have the same need to act out.

What the Partner Can Do

Now let’s look at what Marge can do about this situation. She can watch for Joe’s passive expressions of anger or defiance and talk with him about them. She can ask him if he is angry and explain to him why she thinks he might be. If he listens to her, this will help him to be more aware of his passive-aggressive behavior.

She can also look into herself. I have found that sometimes when a man is being passive-aggressive, his wife may, in fact, be too invested in having things her way. Often this is her side of the dance they do together. So if you are reading this article because your husband is passive-aggressive, I advise you to consider if you are being too controlling. You may inadvertently be triggering his angry and rebellious parts by the way you make demands, or by your expectation that you know best (and he’d better do what you want). This is a common dynamic for couples—a passive-aggressive man and a controlling woman. You may be able to contribute to a resolution of this difficulty by exploring what is behind your need to have things your way.

 To change passive-aggressive behavior, you can use Self-Therapy Journey–an interactive online tool for psychological healing and personal growth which has a module for the Passive-Aggressive Pattern.

To change controlling behavior, Self-Therapy Journey also has a module for the Controlling Pattern.