By: Sarah Zucker, Psy.D.

Passive Aggressive Behavior San Diego PsychologyBeing on the receiving end of passive aggressive behavior can make a normally patient partner, friend, coworker, or family member lose their cool. Even the most self-aware among us can act passively aggressively every once in a while, although we’d usually rather not admit it (GUILTY!). But what exactly is passive aggressive behavior/communication, why do we do it, and how can we do better?

Signe Whitson studies passive aggressive communication styles and writes blog posts on the topic for Psychology Today. She defines passive aggression as a “deliberate, yet covert way of expressing anger in a way that subtly but surely “gets back at” someone.” So instead of being direct about your anger, you demonstrate it passively by subtly (yet clearly) getting your message across. What usually makes people extra angry is that the person who acts passively aggressively rarely cops to the behavior. The response to being called out is often something invalidating like, “No, that wasn’t about me getting back at you, you’re just taking it wrong.” Without the receiver getting validation, both parties tend to remain hurt and upset. Some classic examples from Whitson of verbal and non-verbal passive aggressive communication are: saying you’ll do something but delaying or sabotaging its completion, giving backhanded complements, saying something cruel and then saying you were only kidding, giving the silent treatment, and denying or questioning emotions in yourself or others that are actually obvious to you. I’m sure you can add countless examples from your own life… I know I can!

Aggression is natural in humans. It usually pops up when we’re trying to preserve or gain resources or fend off real or perceived attacks on our physical or emotional safety. Usually, we learn how to communicate and how to demonstrate aggression from a model, such as a parent. If our parents modeled passive aggression, we often learned that this sort of aggression, also sometimes referred to as covert aggression, is a safer and easier way to demonstrate our feelings and enact our desires. After all, if the intention or message isn’t put directly out in the open, (an action which can leave us feeling vulnerable), we can’t be rebuffed or feel rejected. Occasional passive aggression is a relatively minor offense, and most of us do it every so often. But the real problem is when it becomes our style of communicating, because it is all we know how to do. We want to have a repertoire of tools in our belt, not just one trick to get our needs met. And this pattern can cause us even more trouble when we’re not aware that we’ve been expressing ourselves in this way.

So what can you do instead? First, think about your emotional, physical, and financial wellness. If it’s safe to do so, try out being open, honest, and straightforward. Although it’s scary, you’ll find that practicing assertiveness can work out much better for everyone, including you, in the long run. And like everything, it becomes easier with practice. In the past, you may have acted passively aggressively because it didn’t feel safe to be direct. If this is the case, the relationship itself may be the bigger issue and it’s probably a good idea to consult with a trusted mentor, friend, or therapist. If you are safe in your relationship, it’s never too late to redo a recent incident and be open about why you acted the way you did. For example, you might say: “When I didn’t do the chores after saying I would three times, it was because I was angry at you. I was hurt because…” A little acknowledgment with people can go a long way, and your partner will respect that you owned up to your actions. There is no weakness in being vulnerable; it actually requires a lot of guts to be open. So the next time you’re hurt, think about expressing yourself more directly.

Our San Diego office sees many couples who are working through their passive aggressive communication ruts. We also see individuals who aren’t getting what they want out of their relationships anymore, and this often is the result of passive aggressive behavior. While keeping in mind how culture impacts communication style, we work with couples and individuals to help them communicate in a way that works best for them. If you need help or just want a consultation, give us a call.

*It should be noted that while the above style of communication is annoying and hurtful, it’s not inherently manipulative or abusive. Emotional abuse can also be labeled as passive aggressive, but it’s aim is to humiliate, force, and harm, and there really isn’t anything passive about it. If you suspect you are the perpetrator or victim of abuse, which need not include physical harm, call the access and crisis line for help at 1-888-724-7240 .