On the surface, passive aggressive behavior may not seem like such a big deal. After all, many of the signs of this behavior are subtle and easily missed, and if it’s not outright aggression, you can just ignore it. However, dealing with passive aggressive people – friends, family members, and colleagues – over time can be challenging and emotionally taxing. Passive aggressive people can create an unhealthy cycle not only for themselves but also for those around them. Here are the characteristics of this behavior, as well as some suggestions for dealing with passive aggressive people.

Passive aggressive behavior is as varied as the people who display it. Generally, passive aggression is defined as non-verbal aggression that is expressed through certain behaviors. Rather than express negative feelings, a passive aggressive person will bottle them up only to release them in other ways.

Some typical passive aggressive behaviors or signs include:

  • Sullenness or sulking
  • Refusing to talk
  • Making drastic changes in behavior
  • Creating confusion around the issue
  • Obstructing progress in the conversation
  • Evading conversation
  • Chronic lateness
  • Playing the victim
  • Withholding to send a message (e.g. usual chores like cooking, cleaning, etc.)
  • Lack of intimacy (e.g. withholding sex or love)
  • Lack of personal responsibility

These behaviors may be obvious, or they may be hidden by a seemingly sunny, cheerful demeanor. This can make dealing with passive aggressive people especially difficult, as there may be no clear indication of what the real issue is.

Passive aggressive people participate in a form of emotional abuse that is cyclical and ongoing. It chips away at trust between two people and can cause unbridgeable gaps in relationships that can be painful. This type of behavior may develop over time when negative feelings remain pent up. The passive aggressive person may feel the need to keep these feelings inside to avoid further conflict. This can result in the passive aggressive person feeling angry or resentful towards the other person, which continues the cycle.

Passive aggressive people behave the way they do to maintain a semblance of control in their lives. This may be control over their emotions, other people, or the daily patterns of life in general. It can also be viewed as a defense mechanism against fear, rejection, and general insecurity.

Many passive aggressive people became this way due to trauma in their own childhood. They may have been put down for expressing emotion (or teased for having it in the first place), or they may have not been allowed to freely express their thoughts and opinions. This may be a key understanding in dealing with passive aggressive people in general.

Try to learn their history

If the passive aggressive person is a close friend or a family member, taking the time to uncover how they may have come to exhibit this behavior can go a long way towards building a strong basis of trust for both people. If the passive aggressive person is trying to control the situation by getting quiet or is clamming up because he feels he won’t be heard anyway, make it clear that you are there to listen without judgment.

Dealing with passive aggressive people can be much easier if you realize that the behavior probably has nothing to do with you. Being a non-judgmental, accepting presence in a passive aggressive person’s life can be very healing for them.

Set limits

Just because you commit to listening without judgment does not make you a doormat or a punching bag. When a passive aggressive person is continually late, make it clear that your time is just as valuable and set a time limit as to how long you will wait. Then follow through and leave when that time is up.

There is no need to berate them for being late when they aren’t on time; stick to your own schedule and limits firmly but kindly.

Stay calm

Whether the passive aggressive person is your partner or your boss, losing your cool and yelling is a surefire way to escalate the situation. Yelling and outright confrontation may also help the passive-aggressive person to feel like the situation is your fault. This plays into a passive aggressive person’s sense of victimhood and lack of responsibility.

Passive aggressive people may shut down when they get extremely angry, and yelling will only make this type of behavior worse.

Be direct

Indirect communication that requires interpretation or a “shared understanding” does not work with passive aggressive people. Even as they avoid conflict and try to work around an issue, the best way of dealing with passive aggressive people is through direct communication.

If your passive aggressive partner repeatedly puts off doing the dishes at night and frequently “forgets,” ask directly that they be completed right after the meal or right after use. If they mumble under their breath when you are talking, ask them directly if they want to add something to the conversation.

Don’t blame the passive aggressive person for the problem; discuss the problem itself. The first approach is shaming; the second approach is proactive and solution-oriented.

Select consequences, and stick to them

This can be the hardest part of dealing with passive aggressive people. Because the behavior is sometimes vague and indirect, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what is happening and to thus deal with it directly.

However, for some behaviors, there can be direct consequences. If your roommate is making you late in the morning because you give her a ride to work and she is never ready on time, discuss the problem, give the deadline for getting out the door, and then leave. Don’t leave in anger or frustration; leave because you need to be on time to work.

Sticking to a consequence can feel like you are dealing with a child, which can set up a tricky dynamic between partners. Take the time to discuss what’s happening and brainstorm a solution (e.g., making lunch and laying out clothes at night to make the morning easier) before setting consequences.

Passive aggressive people usually have a long, complicated history. Don’t allow their behavior to negatively affect your mental health. Check out these articles for more on dealing with passive aggressive people at work and as partners.


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