Whether you are on the receiving end of passive-aggressive behavior or you are the one dishing it out, this type of communication causes major problems in relationships with others. Passive-aggressive communication is marked by such behaviors as pouting, criticizing, blaming, and not following through on promises. It wreaks havoc on trust and respect between two people, leading to troubled relationships.
The best way to change passive-aggressive behavior is to learn how to identify when it is occurring, reflect on why you are engaging in passive-aggressive behaviors, and learn an alternative way of communicating that allows you to express your needs directly.
What Does “Passive-Aggressive” Mean?
The term passive-aggressive refers to a pattern of communication that indirectly expresses negative feelings about a person or situation rather than openly and honestly addressing them. Passive refers to the neutral or “go with the flow” attitude that is presented at face value, while aggressive hints at the underlying behavior that shows the true motivation for the action.
In passive-aggressive communication, there is a disconnect between what the person says and what they do. Elements of negativity, blame, and victimhood underpin passive-aggressive interactions and breed distrust and dissatisfaction in the relationship.
Typical Passive-Aggressive Behaviors
This most characteristic element of passive-aggressive behavior is that the person engaging in the behavior acts neutral or positive while behaving in the opposite manner. Often, passive-aggressive people don’t know how to handle direct conflict or they use passive-aggressive communication as a way to maintain some control in a relationship where they feel powerless.
The following are typical passive-aggressive behaviors with examples:
Denies Anger While Acting Angry
A passive-aggressive person often says they are fine all the while showing signs of being angry or upset.
Example: Your boyfriend says he isn’t mad about you going out with friends but when you say goodbye before leaving he refuses to hug or kiss you goodbye.
Passive-aggressive people silently keep score of things that have happened in the relationships so that they can bring it up later.
Example: You get your friend a candle for her birthday. Instead of being happy, she complains that she always spends more money on you so you must not care about her.
Forgets or Underperforms (Intentionally)
A passive-aggressive communicator will promise to do something then do it poorly or forget to do it at all.
Example: Your work colleague promises to prepare the introduction to a presentation. When the meeting date arrives they tell you that they “just didn’t have time to do it”.
Acts Hostile or Physically Aggressive
Sometimes, passive-aggressive people act out aggressively by slamming doors or stomping through the house.
Example: You ask your girlfriend what is bothering her and instead of answering she gets up from the table, shoves her chair in, and slams her dishes into the sink.
Passive-aggressive people sometimes sabotage others when they feel insecure or threatened.
Example: You are losing weight and eating healthy, but instead of supporting you, your friend constantly asks you to go out to eat and get dessert.
Complains or Hints About Needs
A passive-aggressive person often makes comments that hint about their needs without directly expressing what they want.
Example: Your mom feels left out of your life but instead of telling you, she makes a comment under her breath about how her kids never invite her over.
Gives the Silent Treatment
An extreme form of passive-aggression, the silent treatment is used to punish you for a perceived slight you made towards the passive-aggressive person.
Example: Your boss is angry with you for taking a day off work. When you return, he ignores you in the hallway and doesn’t speak to you the rest of the day.
Why is Passive Aggressive Behavior Damaging to Relationships?
Passive-aggressive behavior is damaging to relationships because it doesn’t allow for direct conversation. The person exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior uses indirect tactics to try to get their point across rather than telling their partner what they want or need. This results in resentment, tension, distrust, hurt feelings, and other such emotions that keep both parties from meeting each others' needs or addressing problems effectively.
How to Stop Being Passive Aggressive
There are several steps you can take to tone down passive-aggressive behavior and begin communicating in a more direct, open way. They include recognizing what passive-aggressive behavior is, identifying when you are engaging in passive-aggression, reflecting on why you are acting this way, learning new ways of communicating, and being open to feedback and professional help.
Recognize Passive-Aggressive Behavior
The first step in stopping passive-aggressive behavior is to understand what passive-aggressive tactics look like. Many people engage in passive-aggressive behavior because it is what they are taught growing up. They don’t know that it is an unhelpful way of communicating until they experience negative results in their relationships. Once they learn about passive-aggressive behavior by reading bout it and exploring examples, they can start to recognize it in their own behavior in the behavior of others.
Identify When You are Engaging in Passive-Aggression
Identifying when you are engaging in passive-aggressive behavior requires you to examine your own behavior. To identify your own passive-aggressive behavior, reflect back on a time when you felt frustrated and resentful after communicating with someone. Examine how you tried to communicate your needs or thoughts to the other person and see if you recognize any passive-aggressive tactics.
In real-time, pay attention to how you communicate your needs to others throughout the day. Notice when you feel frustrated or unheard. Identify when you use passive-aggressive communication rather than direct communication in stressful situations.
Reflect on Why You are Being Passive-Aggressive
People who act passive-aggressively are not always aware of why they behave the way they do. They feel frustrated and hurt and don’t see their behavior as the problem; instead, they see the other person who is not meeting their needs as the issue. From their point of view, they are trying to get a point across without “starting a fight”, not understanding that their lack of directness is causing a major problem with communication.
To stop being passive-aggressive, you must reflect on why you are engaging in the behavior. Common reasons for passive-aggressive behavior include:
Fear of conflict
Shame for having needs
Fear of how another person will respond
A belief that your needs won’t be met
A belief that conflict is bad
Lack of alternative communication tools
Once you identify your reasons for being passive-aggressive you can work to address the underlying feelings and learn to express yourself in new ways.
Learn New Ways of Communicating
A critical step in stopping passive-aggressive behavior is learning how to better way to communicate with others. Ideally, you will discover ways to communicate directly with your loved ones, whether that means telling them what you need from them or expressing your true feelings in a situation. The following video contains some great tips on communicating effectively with loved ones.
The benefits of learning new ways of communicating are that you feel heard and understood and you are more in touch with your true feelings. Additionally, those around you know exactly what you want and who you are and they don’t have to walk on eggshells around your passive-aggressive behaviors.
Be Open to Feedback and Professional Help
The final step in stopping passive-aggressive behavior is to be open to feedback from others and/or to obtain professional help. Passive-aggressive communication is often a defense mechanism that is rooted in long-standing communication patterns within families. It is the go-to when you feel scared or trapped with negative emotions or unmet needs - in other words, it is habitual.
Listening to the feedback of others, especially those who you know have your best interests in mind, can be helpful to identify your passive-aggressive behaviors and understand how they affect you and others. If you are actively working on changing passive-aggressive communication, ask these people for feedback.
Also, be open to seeing a therapist who can help you with your passive-aggressive behavior. A trained therapist can help you dig into the reasons behind your passive-aggressive communication and find better ways to express yourself.
Give It Time and Keep Growing
Like any new way of behaving, stopping passive-aggressive behavior takes time and awareness. Whether you or the other person in a relationship is engaging in passive-aggressive tactics, don’t expect changes overnight.
Passive aggression is a coping mechanism for feelings of powerlessness, fear, and shame, and it is normal to slip back into these behaviors when high-intensity emotions arise. However, as long as the passive-aggressive party continues to work on identifying and changing their behavior, the relationship will improve. If you are the person engaging in passive-aggressive behavior, the more you learn to directly communicate the less resentful and angry you will feel.