The Best Ways to Deal With a Passive Aggressive Partner

E.B. Johnson

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by: E.B. Johnson (Image via Twenty20.com)

The longer we ignore the passive aggressive behavior of a partner or a spouse, the more harmful it can become. Rather than coming to mutual terms, we find ourselves festering in a stew of negative emotion and resentment that makes it impossible to connect or value one another on a real level. Don’t accept the poor behavior of a passive aggressive partner. Stand up for yourself and learn to set boundaries that protect your relationship and your mental and emotional wellbeing.

Is your partner passive aggressive?

Think you’re dealing with a passive aggressive partner? Stop settling for the resentment, cold shoulders, and blame games that undermine your love and self-esteem. Be honest about your behavior and begin by looking for these very telling signs of passive aggressive tendencies.

Always the victim

Don’t be fooled by the examples above. Just as a passive-aggressive person can be overtly malicious, they can be subtly manipulative too. A common way many passive aggressive people avoid conflict, confrontation, and responsibility is by maintaining a toxic state of victimhood. They paint the world as a vicious machine, hellbent and set on destroying their lives in particular. Nothing is ever their fault, but they are in constant need of rescue.

Endless resentment

The passive aggressive partner is boiling with resentment, but they never voice this resentment directly. Instead, they might stomp around the house o slam doors whenever you disappoint or upset them. Likewise, they may decide to make snide remarks, or underhanded comments (after the fact) that only further work to splinter your relationship and widen the divides that are spreading between you.

Mean-spirited sarcasm

Does your partner use sarcasm as a defensive weapon whenever they’re upset? Do they lean into snark, or make nasty remarks that cut you to the core — rather than just saying how they feel, or disagreeing with you up front? This constant use of sarcasm is a deflection and one that allows your partner to avoid dealing with whatever issues are boiling beneath the surface. Being sarcastic is far easier than honest when you’re an avoidant person.

Intentional sabotage

Because the passive aggressive person is too fearful of direct confrontation, they often use sabotage as a means of expressing their anger and disappointment. Maybe they show up late to an event that means a lot to you, or procrastinate until it’s too late to book that birthday trip you’ve been dreaming of for ages. If they are going out of their way to undermine any happiness or victories, you manage to achieve for you — it could be a sign of passive aggressive behavior.

Weaponizing triggers

Passive aggressive isn’t always as passive as the name might suggest. One of the more malicious tactics that a passive aggressive partner may engage in is intended hurt, which they do indirectly by pushing buttons they know will bring up hard emotions. Perhaps they make a poke at a dead parent, or mock one of your previous relationships and the way a former partner treated you (“No wonder So-and-So hit you…”). However, they do it, they do it to cause harm or seek revenge.

Using blame games

The passive-aggressive person is — generally — not someone who is fond of taking responsibility for their mistakes. This comes down to their preference for avoidance, which makes it too uncomfortable for them to step up and say, “Oops. I made a mistake.” Instead, they revert to blame games and doing everything they can to cast guilt onto those who accuse or confront them.

Deceitful intentions

Along the same lines, you may notice false intentions as a common theme with a passive aggressive partner. This is a bit more of a conscious ploy to undermine your security within the relationship. It happens when your partner or spouse commits to supporting you, or performing an action — but in truth has no intention of following through or showing up when they’re needed. Usually, this is out of some perceived sense of wrong or “hurt”. They use it as a means to revenge or to “punish” you for messing up.

Silent punishment

When it comes to passive aggressive behavior, the silent treatment is a classic staple. This is a tool that avoidant personalities love to use, because it involves completely shutting out any uncomfortable emotions or actions. Instead of speaking up when you hurt their feelings, they clam up; they shut down. They walk away rather than talk things out, and they compound the negative feelings between you by refusing to work through them with you.

The best ways to handle a passive aggressive partner.

Don’t allow your partner’s passive aggressive behavior to undermine your happiness forever. Step in and protect your own wellbeing by being honest, focusing on your own boundaries, having frank conversations, and growing a backbone when it comes to walking away and seeing to your own needs. Stop playing the games and start being real about your future.

1. Be serious about the boundaries you set

Honesty is a great first step, but it’s just that — a first step. Once you have seen your partner’s passive aggressive behavior for what it is, you have to get committed to take action in the name of correcting this behavior (and limiting its impact on you). Now, this becomes tricky when you understand that it’s not possible to change another person’s behavior. While you can communicate the way you feel, and you can ask for a change, the only person you can control is yourself.

For this reason, you have to look toward your own boundaries for the next step in the process. After identifying your partner’s passive aggressive tendencies, consider the lines you can draw for yourself in order to protect against that behavior. How can you put a wall between yourself and their emotional manipulation? How can you protect yourself from their off-putting blame games and victimhood?

Focus on your own boundaries rather than seeking to control your partner. While you have every right to ask them to correct poor behavior, at the end of the day you can’t force them to do that. So, don’t set out looking to direct the course of their actions. As you begin to correct the effects of their passive aggressive behavior, maintain a self-centric approach as you step into action. That is where the true power for transformation and self-protection lies.

2. Have the hard conversations

While you are limited in the direct action, you can take when it comes to controlling your partner’s passive aggressive behavior, there are still steps you can take to engage them. Primary among these is having a frank conversation and mastering the art of addressing your feelings in the moment. In order to this, however, you have to commit to being honest about how you’re feeling and how you’re being impacted by their avoidance and victim mentality.

Rather than running away from your partner’s bad behavior, address it when it happens. When they hand you the silent treatment, refuse it. Count to 10, get clear on your own thoughts, then stop them in their tracks. “Why are you behaving this way? What’s wrong?” Question their behavior and question their motive, too. You have a right to know why you’re being treated a certain way.

Be honest about how their behavior is impacting you. Keep it to the facts, however, and avoid blaming language of your own.“When you hand me the silent treatment, it makes me feel hurt…When you don’t show up for me, I feel angry…” Start small and work your way up as you become more comfortable standing up for yourself and the way you feel. All the time, focus in on your boundaries, which you can communicate to your partner for an extra layer of mutual understanding.

3. Refuse to play their games

Beyond having frank conversations, you can (and should) also refuse to engage in the shortsighted and petty games that your partner invests in whenever they’re hurt. This means refusing to give them the emotional response they’re looking for and refusing to give them control over your relationship and the way you feel about yourself. Once you refuse to engage, you put their power over you to an end.

Don’t enable them by becoming a pawn in their blame games.Whenever your partner baits you or tries to place you in a role you don’t belong in, pull back and remove yourself from the situation.Shut down emotionally when it comes to them. Imagine you’re viewing the situation from a third-person point-of-view.

Giving in to the arguments or the provocations will only give your passive aggressive partner or spouse the ammunition they need to keep going. This is especially true for the partner who is entrenched in toxic victimhood. If you snap back, get angry, or engage them in a fight — it will only reinforce their ideas that you’re a vicious monster out to get them, and that they are (indeed) helpless victims in someone else’s nightmare.

Putting it all together…

Passive aggressive behavior isn’t just something that happens in the workplace or during Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a behavioral pattern which can also poison our intimate relationships and the lives we’re building together. In order to overcome this behavior, we have to be honest about it and learn to spot its signs in our partners (and ourselves).

Start by getting honest about what’s going on. Look at your partner’s behavior and accept it for what it is. Accept too, the way it impacts you and your own emotions. Once you’ve embraced this, you can make pathways to address it. You have to be brutally honest, though, and accept your partner’s behavior alongside that of your own. Know that you can’t change them and use that knowledge to focus on your own boundaries. Draw the line around actions you are and aren’t willing to tolerate, then communicate those boundaries explicitly and without apology. You have a right to need what you need. Master the art of (uncomfortably) frank conversations; like pulling off a bandaid, it’s something that simply has to be done. Refuse to engage in any blame games and find enough backbone to respect yourself and walk away when the disrespect becomes too great. Loving someone is no excuse to settle for less than you deserve.

  • Bekker, M., Bachrach, N., & Croon, M. (2007). The relationships of antisocial behavior with attachment styles, autonomy-connectedness, and alexithymia. Journal Of Clinical Psychology, 63(6), 507–527. doi: 10.1002/jclp.20363

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