How to Deal With a Passive-Aggressive Partner

wife with passive aggressive husband

You're annoyed at your partner so you accidentally "forget" to tell him the start time of his soccer game changed. Or maybe the last time he got upset with you, he quietly ignored that broken step on your stairs -- for MONTHS. On the face of it, you're not fighting and neither of you has necessarily done anything "wrong." But this is passive-aggressive behavior on both counts, FYI. And it ain't good.


"Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of responding to internal and external conflict indirectly," explains Paul Hokemeyer, JD, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works out of New York City, Los Angeles, and Telluride, Colorado.

Instead of owning your emotions -- no matter how uncomfortable or unflattering -- and working through them, "people who are passive-aggressive manipulate others' emotions by failures and omissions," Hokemeyer says.

For instance, let's say your partner thinks you're flirting with his friend. Instead of coming right out and admitting how jealous/upset/insecure he's feeling, "he might leave a mess in the kitchen, stay out all night drinking with his buddies, buy a new $45,000 truck, or shamelessly flirt with your best friend," notes Hokemeyer.


If you or your partner are PA, you probably grew up in a household where directly expressing emotions was frowned upon or even forbidden, Hokemeyer explains.

"These families tend to be ruled by an authoritarian parent with a mental health issue or substance abuse disorder, and as a result, other family members had to suppress their truth and live in fear of their emotions," he says. "Of course, emotions can't be suppressed ... And if they can't come directly, they'll bubble out indirectly."

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Hence, the silent treatment, $45,000 truck, or shameless flirting while insisting, "Of course, everything's fine."

And, weirdly, "learned helplessness" is another form of passive-aggressive behavior, says Hokemeyer. So for instance, maybe your partner's super-jealous that your career is taking off and his isn't. Instead of talking about his feelings, he might constantly ask your help with even the simplest household chores -- "tasks that keep you in his clutches and away from your work life," Hokemeyer says.

So how do you deal if all this is (loudly) ringing a bell of familiarity?

"The best way to deal with passive-aggressive behavior is directly," notes Hokemeyer. "Bring the pattern of behavior out into the open."

Here's your script:

"I don't know why you did [insert passive-aggressive behavior here]. It makes no sense. There must be something else going on here."

Then, advises Hokemeyer, "engage the person in a loving, but firm, conversation to reveal what's going on underneath the surface."

But let's say you're BOTH passive-aggressive, and direct emotion is YOUR Kryptonite, too. What then?

"Be the adult and take responsibility," advises Hokemeyer. "Challenge yourself to change and to develop healthier, more loving ways of communicating."

You can't expect the other person to change if you continue to play the victim, after all. "If you change yourself for the better," Hokemeyer adds, "the relationships in your life will change for the better, too."


Image via Piotr Marcinski/Shutterstock

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