One of the hardest patterns of behavior for all
of us to deal with is passive aggressive behavior.
Passive aggressive behavior happens when the person
avoids responsibility and attempts to control others
to keep them away through his passivity and withdrawal.
It is a dynamic born of fear of being controlled,
fear of confrontation, hidden anger and an inability
to deal straight with people.
Passive aggressive behavior is complex and takes
many forms. We all have passive behavior that comes
up when we don't want to deal with conflict directly
or do a task. We all hedge, fudge and remain noncommittal
on issues some of the time. That's normal. It's
only when repeated passivity creates severe issues
for others setting up continual tension and anger
in the household that it becomes a serious problem
that should be addressed. Common examples of this
habitual, passive retreat style of dealing with
confrontation and stress include:
all of these people have in common is that the significant
people in their life become very, very angry at their
resistant behavior. The negative energy in the relationship
boomerangs from one partner to the other resulting
in an unhappy relationship.
The person who says one thing but means the opposite.
The man who acts passive but aggressively gets
his own way by not doing what is wanted.
The boss who squelches his anger then strikes
out indirectly. (Perhaps by withdrawing.)
The woman who says yes when she means no; then
gets cold feet and refuses to follow through.
The teenager who agrees up front then doesn't
do what he agreed to.
The client who schedules an appointment but does
not show up.
The person who fears self assertion and confrontation,
but says no by sidestepping responsibility.
Anyone in the family who creatively gets out of
doing his or her part of the chores.
The Mr. Nice Guy who puts on the sweet face to
agree, then does what he darn well pleases.
The student who procrastinates with studying and
does poorly in school.
The parent who refuses to discipline the children
and insists on the spouse being the ‘heavy.'
The bored housewife who refuses to clean the house
or cook for her family.
The person who refuses to hear criticism, discuss
his problems or read books about the issue.
The dad who pushes one child hard but allows the
other child to get out of responsibility.
The not ready to be committed man wanting someone
there for him but feels entitled to his freedom.
Any individual who spends his effort into under
achieving in school, in relationships and in life!
While women can have passive aggressive behavior,
this condition is more typically found in men, therefore
this article will focus on the typical male version
of this dynamic. The typical passive aggressive
man has not worked through his anger and power issues
with his parents so he replays them in current relationships.
His anger comes out in passive way of avoidance.
Psychologist, Scott Wetzler, in Living With the
Passive Aggressive Man: Coping with the Personality
Syndrome of Hidden Aggression From the Bedroom to
the Boardroom, discusses the dynamic that sets
up passive behavior. There are many childhood set
ups for this way of coping but most often there
is a domineering mother and a father who is ineffectual.
Or there may be a passive mother who gets out of
responsibility by her helplessness. There are power
struggles in the marriage with one parent backing
off and withdrawing. The boy feels trapped between
choosing loyalties at home. He is afraid to compete
with his father who is absent either physically
or emotionally or perceived as being inadequate.
In the typical mother dominant-father passive relationship,
the boy learns that the job of being a man in relationship
is to escape the woman's needs and subsequent demands.
The young boy is not allowed to express his feelings
and develop a sense of self. He wants his mother's
attention and care yet he resents her continual
intrusion. His anger grows but he cannot express
it so it becomes submerged and is expressed in an
unconscious ‘You can't tell me what to do.' He is
not allowed to get his way by direct confrontation
and competition so he learns to displace his anger
through resistance. He learns to use charm, stubbornness,
resistance and withdrawal to protect himself in
power struggles. He rebels by becoming moody, being
an underachiever or developing behavior problems.
His self protectiveness and duplicity from the squelched
anger and hostility becomes a habit that he plays
out with other women he meets. He desperately seeks
a woman to meet his needs of being accepted for
who he is, but puts her off with small, continual
acts of rebellion. He replays the distancing drama
of his original family In the relationship.
and Hidden Hostility as Major Characteristics
The man with passive aggressive behavior needs someone
to be the object of his hidden hostility. He needs
an adversary whose expectations and demands he can
resist as he plays out the dance he learned from
his parents. He chooses a woman who will agree to
be on the receiving end of his disowned anger. He
resists her in small ways setting up a pattern of
frustration so that she gets to express the anger
that he cannot.
The biggest irritant in being with a passive aggressive
man is that he doesn't follow through on his agreements
and promises. He dodges responsibility while insisting
he's pulling his weight. He procrastinates, takes
on big projects but doesn't finish them then feels
put upon or hostile if someone else tries to finish
it. He often ignores reality as to his irresponsibility
and withdrawal. He denies evidence, distorts minimalizes
or lies to make his version of reality seem logical.
He uses vague language to sandbag the partner. Inconsistency
and ambiguity are his tools of choice. He often
gives double messages and expects his partner to
read his mind and meet his needs saying ‘She should
have known how it is.' He withholds information
and has a hidden agenda. He can't take criticism
and makes excuses to get himself off the hook. He
sulks and uses silence when confronted about his
inability to live up to his promises, obligations
or responsibilities. When he doesn't follow through,
he puts the blame on his partner so he doesn't have
to take it and accuses her of having the problem.
The man with this type of pattern shows little consideration
of the time, feelings, standards or needs of others.
He obstructs and block progress to others getting
what they want and then ignores or minimalizes their
dissatisfactions and anger. He is silent when confronted
as he has never learned to compromise. He may be
a workaholic, a womanizer, hooked on TV, caught
in addictions or self-involved hobbies.
He may have multiple relationships with women as
a way of keeping distant from one fully committed
relationship. He is confused about which woman he
wants and stays caught between the two women in
his life not being able to commit fully to either.
He is confused and can't understand why the women
get so angry with him. He feels others demand too
much of him so resists in overt and subtle ways
and feels deprived if must give in to others. The
man who copes with conflict by not being there has
strong conflict over dependency. He desperately
wants attention but fears being swallowed up by
the partner. He can't be alone and live without
a woman in his life, but can't be with partner emotionally.
He's caught in a Catch 22--wanting affection but
avoiding it because he fears it as his destruction.
He resents feeling dependent on the woman so must
keep her off guard. He makes his partner feel like
a nothing through his neglect or irritability but
he keeps her around because he needs her. His script
is ‘Be here for me, but don't come too close and
don't burden me with your needs or expectations.'
He has such strong fears of intimacy deep in his
unconscious mind so he must set barriers up to prevent
a deep emotional connection. He is clever at derailing
intimacy when it comes up by tuning out his partner
and changing the subject. He must withhold part
of himself to feel safe and may withdraw sexually.
Closeness and intimacy during sex may make him feel
vulnerable and panicked bringing forth his deepest
fears of dependency upon a woman. The passive aggressive
man lives an internal loneliness; he wants to be
with the woman but stays confused whether she is
the right partner for him or not. He is scared and
insecure causing him to seek contact with a partner
but scared and insecure to fully commit.
Due to the wounding from childhood, he is unable
to trust that he is safe within the relationship.
He fears revealing himself and can't share feelings.
His refusal to express feelings keeps him from experiencing
his sense of insecurity and vulnerability. He often
denies feelings like love that might trap him into
true connection with another human being. He feels
rejected and hurt when things don't go his way but
can't distinguish between feeling rejected and being
rejected. He pushes people away first so he won't
be rejected. He is often irritable and uses low-level
hostility to create distance at home. The relationship
becomes based on keeping the partner at bay. He
often sets up experiences to get others to reject
or deprive him. He is noncommittal and retreats,
feeling put upon and burdened by partner's requests
for more closeness. He becomes a cave dweller to
The man with passive aggressive actions is a master
in getting his partner to doubt herself and feel
guilty for questioning or confronting him. He encourages
her to fall for his apologies, accept his excuses
and focus on his charm rather than deal with the
issue directly. He blames her for creating the problem
and keeps her focused on her anger rather than his
own ineptitude. When backed into a corner, he may
explode and switch to aggressive aggressive behavior
then switch back to passivity. He keeps his partner
held hostage by the hope that he will change. He
may appease her and clean up his act after a blow
up for several weeks, then it's back to business
The passive aggressive man is the classic underachiever
with a fear of competition in the work place. He
cannot take constructive feedback from others. His
fear of criticism, not following through and his
inability to see his part in any conflict keeps
him from advancing on the job. He may take three
roles on the job or switch back and forth between
l. The yes man who is afraid to express his
opinion then is secretly angry,
2. The boss or co-worker tyrant who thinks
he's perfect and tries to discredit or eliminates
anyone who threatens his power,
3. The victim who is failure prone due to
his lack of initiative, follow through and self
How the Woman's
Needs Contributes to the Unhealthy Dynamics of the
Passive aggressive behavior does not happen in a
vacuum; it requires a partner to bounce things off
of. This problems exists between people--one who
resists and one who get frustrated. The need for
a woman to choose and remain with a passive aggressive
partner is a dynamic that is set up in her childhood.
The little girl learns this pattern in childhood
observing her parents. One parent withdraws and
frustrates the spouse who becomes angry. The little
girl learns to take care of others and get depressed
when they don't appreciate it. Desperately she wants
the parents to change but cannot express her deep
When she grows up, the woman unconsciously chooses
men who will play out the familiar patterns of her
childhood of retreat and attack. She falls for the
man's charm, his neediness or sense of poise and
togetherness and ignores his real lack of connection
with others. If the man's hostility and withdrawal
is left unchallenged, the woman's doubt in herself
grows. His failures become her failures. The harder
she works on the relationship, the cleverer he is
in eluding her. Her life is in continual uproar
as she mulls over the inconsistencies in daily events.
He feels threatened and insecure and withdraws,
she gets angry. She gets angry, he withdraws and
the unresolved conflict boomerangs between then.
Relationships, which do not allow straight talk,
frankness and appropriate expression of anger become
The woman living with a passive aggressive man goes
back and forth between three roles--the Rescuer,
the Victim or the Manager. Living with the passive
aggressive man pushes the woman into frustration
and anger as a major dynamic in day-to-day conflict.
When she cannot get her needs met, she becomes the
Blamer, the Bitch, and the Rager, which then makes
the man feel very insecure in the relationship.
She is caught in her role as a martyr-victim, codependent
rescuer or controlling manager as she does not know
how to do anything different. She rides the emotional
roller coaster as she always wants more from her
man--more commitment, more cooperation and more
doing what he says he will do. Her self-esteem erodes
as her frustration and anger turn to rage as she
feels guilty about the intensity and destructiveness
of her aggression. She may repeat choosing passive
aggressive men in several relationships until she
learns how her own neediness sets her up for relationship
Bounce the Boomerang Back: Your Role in Limit Setting
and Talking Straight
While it is difficult to be a partner of a man who
continually frustrates you with his passive aggressive
behavior, there are some things than a woman can
do to break into his noninvolvement pattern. When
the partner understands the problem and attacks
it with determination using straight talk, some
of the man's irritating behavior can change. Depending
upon the severity of the passive aggressive stance,
small inroads can be made. However, there is no
easy cure for this life long habit.
Here are some ideas for fair fighting which work
with all types of personalities but are especially
helpful for dealing with passive aggressive behavior.
This approach works for both the withdrawing partner
or the defiant teenager. Note--this is no easy task--it
takes hard work to be direct and straight to the
point at all times. Remember YOU ARE NOT HIS THERAPIST--DON'T
TRY TO ANALYZE HIM--JUST SET THINGS STRAIGHT WHEN
THEY GO OFF TRACK, THEN DROP THE SUBJECT AND GET
ON WITH YOUR LIFE.
Watch how you hook in. Observe your unrealistic
expectations for him to change. Don't demand more
than he can willingly give. Hire out projects you
think he won't carry through on. Get realistic--try
to figure out where he can realistically change
and what is set in stone for him.
Set firm limits for yourself. Stick to them like
glue. State them repeatedly. Use ‘I messages' to
share feelings of disappointment. Don't protect
him from your unhappy feelings. Accept no excuses
when he says he couldn't help it. Tell him that
it is a choice he made. Tell him how his behavior
injures or affects others. Ask him if he would like
to be treated this way. When he says he forgot,
point out that he remembers things that are important
to him. Ask him how he would feel if you forgot
to do things important to him.
Pick your fights wisely. Choose your stand wisely
focusing the most important things. Overlook his
neurotic traits but intervene on those behaviors
that are most irritating to you.
Look at your own passive style of avoiding conflict.
Watch how you blow off the important things and
blow up at small things. Own up when you use passivity
to avoid conflict. If he throws it back at you say,
‘This is not about you turning it back on me when
I'm honest about my own shortcomings. We are trying
to identify patterns that are unhealthy for us.
Notice your need to blame me when I'm trying to
Make an agreement of ‘No trash talk' when arguing.
Stick to one subject. Don't allow the argument to
go off track. (This is not about ___, we're discussing
___) Agree to take time out to cool down and return
to the topic. Learn stress management techniques
to handle your anxiety during the time out period.
Read articles on fair fighting to ways to resolve
Encourage him to make decisions--accept whatever
you can during this time of building his confidence
about committing himself on small matters. Whenever
possible be noncritical of his actions. When you
must criticize, be critical of his behavior, not
him. Wild recriminations and threats only make him
retreat more to his cave of isolation and anger.
When he doesn't follow through and says, ‘I can't,'
remind him that it means he won't because he doesn't
feel like doing what is asked. Ask him to be more
honest and say that he doesn't want to do what you
asked. Point out the lack of effort when he is unwilling
to do something boring or disagreeable. Make fewer
demands on him and only ask for what you absolutely
Point out how he distorts the truth and discounts
problems that he creates. Use gentle, direct confrontation.
Don't humor, placate or make excuses for his behavior.
Challenge double messages and ambiguous plans. Point
out his indirect, non answers and sitting on the
fence statements. Pin him down on his confusing
the issue to save his skin. When he says, ‘You know
how I say things I don't mean.' Confront him with
‘How do I know which half? When you give me mixed
messages I get so confused that I don't feel loving
and close to you.'
Point out his victim messages. He may beat himself
up first so you will feel sorry for him and won't
punish him. Show how his self-defeating talk clouds
the issue of his not completing his responsibilities.
Praise him in areas he does do well often to build
up his self-confidence. Stress your commitment to
the relationship and how it could be good for both
if the two of you work out a process of dealing
with conflict. Discuss his fears of being dependent
upon you and how that's related to rebellion. Watch
how you invade his privacy and undermine his decision
making. Ask him how what you could do to make him
feel safer. If he refuses to acknowledge his fears,
remind him that we all have fears and fear is constructive
in that it helps us learn about ourselves. Tell
him that the mature person faces his fears rather
than denying them. The only way to deal with fear
is to face it--fears faced can be overcome. Tell
him, ‘The next time you feel like you are being
swallowed up, just watch your feelings. Face them.
Sit with them and they will pass.'
When he blames you for not trusting him or says
he can't trust you, point out how he has betrayed
your trust in the past. Tell him trust must be earned
and you would like greater trust between the two
of you. Ask him for a plan to build trust (doing
what he says he will do, stop saying yes when he
knows he won't get around to doing what you want,
If he flares up and blames you when you give information,
ask him to look at his feeling put down when given
information. Point out his pattern of needing to
sulk and how that makes the problems worse. Tell
him, ‘I feel the hostility in your walling yourself
off. There is nothing we can't talk about. We can
work this out if we keep it on the table. Let's
talk.' Point out the positive benefits of feedback
and criticism as something he can learn about himself.
Be willing to receive feedback and criticism yourself.
Redefine the relationship as being open to hearing
unpleasant things that will promote positive change.
Together, learn ways to cope with the unpleasant
feelings that being criticized brings up.
Call his attention to every attempt to manipulate
or control you through anger. His anger is expressed
through withdrawal, sarcasm, irritability and intimidation.
Tell him, ‘People who are constantly angry have
a lot of fear. Let's try to figure out what pushes
your anger buttons to bring our power struggles
out in the open. Show how anger unexpressed may
go underground and fester.
Take an anger management workshop together to learn
to express uncomfortable feelings in safe, appropriate
ways. Bring his submerged rage out into the open
by saying, ‘I sensed some hostility in how you dealt
with this issue. Could we explore this together?'
Convince him it's okay to be angry Allow him to
be more direct. Learn tactics of fair fighting and
using anger in constructive ways.
Learn to deal with your own anger in appropriate
ways. Observe your anger reactions, which fuel his
determination to out wit you with passivity. Nagging
and reopening the subject make things worse. Drop
it and move on. Remember that the incorrect expression
of anger is at the root of both his and your issues.
Your choice daily is to state your anger in direct,
firm, fair ways.
Challenge the silent treatment by saying ‘When you
refuse to talk with me, I get upset. Both of us
angry is poison for our relationship. When you don't
talk to me, I make wild assumptions that further
distance us. We are two intelligent people who can
talk this out. What do we really want in our relationship--angry
silence or problem solving?' State consequences
when he refuses to negotiate and compromise. Get
a reality check from someone you trust on options
for consequences. Follow through on consequences.
Ask for compromises as a way for the relationship
to win. State your compromise, ask him for his.
Insist on his making an offer to resolve the problem
if he doesn't like your ideas. Keep the focus on
problem solving. Point out that true partnerships
work with each other as focused allies working on
the issue. Sing the Beatle song, ‘You see it your
way, I see it my way, we can work it out. We can
work it out!' Demonstrate how his nonclosure of
a chronic problem and his noninvolvement affects
him, you and the relationship. Keeping pushing the
concept that the two of you can overcome any problem.
Don't dwell on disappointment. Don't take his refusal
personally--see it as learned behavior, which he
uses to avoid confrontation. Learn stress management
techniques to deal with your own hurt and sense
of betrayal. Take a meditation or yoga class to
learn deep breathing to deal with stress. Learn
to observe your own disappointment rather than wallowing
Take courses on couples communication. Go into marriage
counseling with someone who understands this passive
aggressive man--angry wife dynamic. If he refuses,
get help in understanding your own need to continue
in an unhappy relationship.
for your peace of mind. Get your own life.
If you are expending much time and energy in relationship
damage repair then you need to face some hard questions.
Honestly ask yourself, ‘Am I seeking intimacy from
a man who is incapable of closeness? Am I expecting
cooperation and compromise from a man who cannot
give it? Is this man workable? Is he putting energy
into behavior change or does he put his effort into
avoiding his problems?' If the above suggestions
don't work and you are constantly upset and raging
at him, take a good look at your need to live with
conflict. If you have done all you can do to correct
the situation with no avail and it is affecting
your health, consider leaving. Or accept that things
will not change and try live a happy life anyway.
Perhaps the hardest skill in life for all of us
is to deal with arguments and conflict in productive
ways. It's hard to be straight and acknowledge our
irritation, frustration, anger and hostility. Yet
dealing with conflict up front is a challenge that
can increase self-esteem and help us lead healthier
Most of us didn't learn how to settle disagreements
from our parents and very few of us take a course
in conflict resolution and problem solving. Investing
some time and energy in anger management and safe
anger expression will pay off in benefits tenfold.
In the long run, how the man works out his conflicts
about his dependency needs and misdirected anger
and how the woman learns to counteract passive aggressive
behavior determines the success of their relationship.
Straight communication is where it's at in having
a happy life. In a mature relationship both partners
interrupt their aggressive and passive aggressive
stances and deal with each other in direct ways.
Straight communication brings out a depth of intimacy
that is comforting and nurturing for both.
Living With the Passive
Aggressive Man: Coping with the Personality Syndrome
of Hidden Aggression From the Bedroom to the Boardroom,
Scott Wetzler, Ph. D. Simon & Schuster, New York,
I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming The
Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terry Real
How Can I Get Through to You?: Terry Real