The danger a passive aggressive partner can present to your relationship

By Liz Paul, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

In couples therapy it is not uncommon to come across the dilemma of one partner’s passive aggressiveness and the challenge that presents to the relationship.

Passive aggressiveness takes many forms. In this article, I am referring to the scenario where one partner uses an indirect expression of hostility towards their partner, such as subtle insults, sullen behaviour, stubbornness or a failure to follow-through with a promise or an apparent deliberate failure to accomplish required tasks.

Although the relationship may be loving, the other partner can feel like they often have to walk on eggshells because minor differences of opinion have the potential to send their passive aggressive partner into a sullen mood.

And they know, from experience, their passive aggressive partner will break promises and commitments (simply because they want to avoid having the hard conversation around not being able to deliver, or they didn’t want to disappoint their partner or they simply never intended to comply).  Then the passive aggressive partner will complain their partner’s expectations are impossible to meet. They twist the focus of the problem to become about the other partner’s demands, rather than the fact that they have been intentionally unreliable.

A key dilemma here is that if your partner is passive aggressive they will be highly sensitive to perceived or real criticism – they will genuinely feel like they are being unreasonably attacked.

They feel that, no matter what they do, they can’t please their partner.  This is ironic, because they intentionally behave in a way that only serves their own needs.

In turn, their partner loses trust they can rely on them to follow through with any promises.

So, partners of passive aggressive people usually develop a tendency to over-function, feeling the need to take-over key tasks to ensure they are completed. This can become an all-consuming aspect of their life, resulting in physical and emotional exhaustion.

This eventually fuels the flames of injustice which underlies the hurt and anger they are feeling at their partner’s unreliable and insensitive behaviour.

Of course, this corrodes a sense of team work, as the roles and responsibilities of each individual within the partnership become unclear and ultimately the sense of emotional connection between the couple declines.

How a relationship can survive a passive aggressive partner

As members of a couple, you both need to break your patterns of behaviour as you are both playing a role in the dysfunction.  For example:

  • The over-functioning partner needs to stop taking over all the tasks… you need to pull back from being the martyr. It’s time to look after yourself.
  • It’s also time to have an honest conversation with the passive aggressive partner to let them know you understand that you impose standards on them however no more than you impose on yourself. Ask them if they think you both might be better off if you ‘chilled out’ a little and relaxed your expectations of them.
  • Passive aggressive people often don’t pursue their own desires directly and sometimes it is difficult for them to even identify their own core wishes. This is possibly because they have grown up in an environment where they were not heard and therefore their needs were not attended to. They ended up learning how to get what they needed through the use of covert behaviours. Discuss with them what makes them happy. Let them know you are going to work with them, and not against them, to help them achieve their wishes.
  • The over-functioning partner needs to abstain from being judgemental for at least a couple of weeks. Instead, notice what your partner is getting done, be positive when they deliver and tell them how much this means to you. This is important as most passive aggressive people grew up in a family environment where they were deprived of positive, nurturing behaviour. Expressions of appreciation go a long way.
  • If you identify as the passive aggressive person in your relationship then the most important message for you is: promise less and deliver more. A lot of the time when you make a promise you understand there is a good chance you may not deliver. So, only make promises you will commit to keeping.  Do that, and you won’t have to endure the difficult ‘Why haven’t you… ‘ conversation with your partner, nor will you need to experience their anger or disappointment.
  • When the passive aggressive person fails to deliver on a commitment, they need to try to tolerate their partner’s disappointed reaction, acknowledge it, and promise to do better next time.
  • The passive aggressive person can also take the initiative by volunteering to take some of the workload off their partner. But make sure you deliver on your promise.  It will be worth it, because your partner will appreciate your efforts, and will enjoy being nurtured.

If you work as a team, you can overcome one partner’s passive aggressive behaviour, and so create a happier, more harmonious and more sustainable relationship. One that can last a lifetime.

Liz Paul

Clinical Psychotherapist & Counsellor
Sydney Individuals and Couples Counselling
Think Ahead Centre

Suite 5D, 5 Dee Why Parade
Dee Why NSW 2099

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Ph: 0422 306 679

[email protected]