5 Ways to Deal With If You Have a Passive-Aggressive Partner
Passive-aggressive behavior might be easy to pick out in a colleague or friend, but in your spouse, it can be difficult—even though you know them better than anybody. Passive-aggressive partners are generally codependent, and like codependents, suffer from shame and low self-esteem.
In a nutshell, being passive-aggressive means feeling angry or upset, but expressing it indirectly instead of actually coming out and saying how you really feel.
It’s a very common behavior in relationships of any kind, but especially romantic relationships—and the short of it is that it’s not helpful and, in fact, can be rather damaging.
Passive-aggressive spouses do not respond openly when upset. Instead, their anger comes out in ways that sabotage you and your attempt to solve problems in your marriage.
Passive-aggressive people view everything as an attack on them; they respond by trying to “get even,” in underhanded ways, and you are their target.
If you are married to someone you think is passive-aggressive, we outlined some common behaviors you'll likely see consistently in your marriage.
1. LEARN TO IDENTIFY YOUR SPOUSE’S PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIORS.
In many cases, passive aggression goes much deeper than the common “I’m fine” scenario. If you think your spouse might have passive-aggressive tendencies, it could be helpful to ask yourself:
- Whether your spouse appears to be undermining or sabotaging things that are important to you on a regular basis
- If your spouse tends to brush off their hurtful comments or actions as simple “misunderstandings,” but you continue to feel uneasy
- Whether your spouse tends to “punish” you later for conflicts you thought you’d resolved together
- If you feel angry or unsettled around him or her often, but don’t really know why
- Whether you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells or dodging landmines with this person
It can be really difficult to identify passive aggression at first until you’ve learned your spouse’s patterns, and it’s normal to second-guess your own instincts. But while it’s easy to convince yourself that your spouse doesn’t have hard feelings toward you, their behavioral patterns will tell you otherwise.
2. ASK YOUR PARTNER WHAT'S REALLY BOTHERING THEM.
Passive-aggressive behavior is a way to cover up deeper issues, people who use passive-aggressive behavior in relationships allow problems to fester until they’re bigger than issues than they should be, and they’ve got history.
This can create an even larger disconnect in the relationship, and potentially even lead to its demise. When you offer to talk through bad feelings, you’re giving your relationship a chance to grow, heal, and progress in a positive way.
3. UNDERSTAND WHERE PASSIVE-AGGRESSION COMES FROM.
While there’s no excuse for any kind of aggressive behavior, it’s helpful to understand why your spouse is repeating these patterns.
On a low level, passive aggression could be the result of your spouse’s fear to speak up and tell you what they want. Instead, they find underhanded ways of getting it, even if that means it could be hurtful to you in the process.
We commonly observe the following underlying issues in the couples we encounter who deal with passive-aggressive patterns:
Low self-esteem: The passive-aggressive person might feel like they’re at a perpetual, innate disadvantage. Your spouse might display a victim mentality and operate out of a deep sense of insecurity… which helps them justify their devious methods of getting what they want. You might even notice that your spouse knocks you down in order to elevate themselves.
Sense of powerlessness: This goes hand-in-hand with the victim mentality. If your spouse feels out of control of a situation (or many situations), that feeling may fuel underhanded tactics or jealousy toward you–particularly if you’re enjoying success in an area they aren’t.
Buried feelings of inadequacy and injustice: People who act out passive-aggressively tend to feel, deep down, that they’re getting the short end of the stick.
If your spouse feels like you have some kind of unfair advantage over them when it comes to your career, your relationships, or anything else they want and doesn’t have, watch out.
They might hold deep feelings of resentment toward you, but they’ll never admit it. Basically, this is an ongoing, adult-size, “it’s-not-fair” tantrum.
4. DON’T MAKE EXCUSES FOR YOUR SPOUSE OR JUSTIFY THEIR BEHAVIOR.
Part of accepting the situation for what it involves not making excuses for your spouse’s behavior, to yourself or anyone else. Maybe no one else sees the passive aggression; in that case, train yourself to stop inwardly justifying it.
If someone else observes the behavior and points it out to you, don’t try to explain it away.
People who behave passive-aggressively hate being “found out” more than almost anything else. If you have the opportunity to let your spouse know that you know what they’re doing, do it carefully.
Stand up for yourself or anyone else affected by their behaviors. Being clear about what behaviors you will not accept may open the floor for some discussions about the patterns you’ve been experiencing (and it never hurts to seek out a good marriage therapist).
5. SET HEALTHY BOUNDARIES.
It hurts deeply to accept that your spouse has passive-aggressive tendencies and might not always have your best interests at heart.
Once you’ve come to terms with the dynamic in your relationship right now, start taking steps to set boundaries that protect yourself from further passive-aggressive behaviors.
Depending on the extent of the issue, you may have to start being selective about what you share with your spouse. Deep thoughts, feelings, and aspirations might not be safe to express.
You know your spouse best, so use your judgment going forward. You may find that only certain topics need to be off-limits, rather than a broad change to your communication.
We know this is difficult to read, but now that you know you’re dealing with passive aggression in your marriage, it’s critical to protect yourself. Guard your boundaries and do whatever you can to get help–for both of you.
It will also be important to approach your spouse with vulnerability and empathy. You may not be able to get them to admit to their passive aggression, but you might be able to start a conversation that eventually leads to a discussion of feelings of inadequacy or loss of control.
In this way, you might find opportunities to speak truth to your spouse’s abilities and talents, breathing life into those areas where they feel less-than.
With the right approach and professional support, you can overcome passive-aggressive patterns and build a happier, healthier marriage together.
If you find that, despite your best efforts, you and your partner keep sliding back into these passive-aggressive behaviors, it can be helpful to seek couples therapy.