How To Stop Passive Aggression From Ruining Your Relationship

Learning to express anger in a healthy way will help couples resolve conflicts, instead of letting them simmer.

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Every Saturday night, Bill and Sarah leave their son with a babysitter and go out to dinner. Sarah hopes that by dressing up for date night, it’ll keep a spark in their marriage. One night, Sarah puts on a new, little red dress. It’s more daring than what she usually wears, so she’s nervous to show him.

When he sees it on her, he smiles and gives a little, surprised shake of his head. “You look…different,” he says. Sarah feels crushed, but she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she feels self-conscious all night and swears to herself that she’ll never wear it again.

That night, when they’re in bed together, and Bill leans in to kiss her, she gives him a quick peck on the cheek, rolls over, and pretends to fall asleep. For the rest of the week, Sarah thinks about the red dress and Bill’s comment. She pretends her stomach hurts when Bill wants to make love.

By Saturday, Sarah is fuming mad but holds her feelings in, just so she doesn’t have to ask, “What did you mean by ‘You look different’?” and say, “That hurt my feelings.” What she doesn’t know is that if she did so, it would make her feel better. Bill would tell her the truth: He’d never seen her in something like that before, so she caught him off guard. But he liked the way she looked in it.

Sarah’s behavior toward Bill is a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior. Passive aggression is the indirect expression of anger by someone who is uncomfortable or unable to express his or her anger or hurt feelings honestly and openly.

When both members of a couple have a healthy relationship with anger, they can feel it, say they’re upset, discuss what triggered them, and find a resolution and closure. Passive aggression is a symptom of the fear of conflict. While someone’s passive aggressive behavior may make you instantly feel like you’re in the middle of a fight, that’s what he or she is trying to avoid.

Unfortunately, it makes it much harder to reach resolution and closure, because the anger is always simmering, never rising to the surface to be confronted.

Passive aggressiveness often stems from one’s childhood experience with anger. If you witnessed explosive anger as a child, where a caregiver yelled or displayed physical aggression, you are likely to grow up terrified of the emotion—not just of seeing someone get angry, but of feeling anger, too. Passive aggression can also spring from caretakers who treated anger like it was always on the emotional “no” list. Happiness? Yes. Sadness? Sure, everyone feels sad sometimes. Anger? Nope. Not in this house.

When we grow up believing that anger is always scary or is never allowed, we don’t learn how to feel it and express it in a way that is healthy and even beneficial to a relationship.

To see how to stop this type of behaviour click here.