he first time I realized I wasn’t a perfect girlfriend was when my boyfriend and I were just months into dating. I was mad at him for asking if we could stay in when we’d made plans to go out. It wasn’t the first time he had bailed like this. Rather than telling him I was upset, though, I sulked and gave him the silent treatment. When he asked what was up, I insisted I was “fine,” before proceeding to give only one-word responses and basically ignore him for the rest of the evening.
It’s not something I like to admit but: I’m passive aggressive, and more than four years into dating my boyfriend, it’s still my worst relationship habit.
“Passive aggressive behavior is a direct but covert expression of hostility,” says Mabel Yiu, a marriage and family therapist and founder of the Women’s Therapy Institute in Palo Alto, California. “[It’s] a tool that helps individuals to cope with situations where they feel powerless and to avoid conflict.”
In relationships, the behavior can include the silent treatment, stonewalling, stubbornness, giving mixed messages, playing the victim, being highly critical, making snarky comments, being elusive, playing ignorant, or agreeing to a task and then procrastinating or not doing it. I’ve been guilty of probably all of those things. I’m not the type to leave passive aggressive notes, but I’ve perfected being snarky and stubborn.
When my boyfriend doesn’t ask if I need help with the dishes, I’ll remark, “No, it’s OK, I love doing the dishes.” Then I resort to begrudgingly doing them myself — and I’m loud about it, banging pots and pans as they hit the sink and slamming the fridge door as I put leftovers away. But then I say I’m fine. One time I even asked if if he wanted me to feed him his dinner, too.
I know it sounds ridiculous, and that I sound like an asshole, but for those of us who exhibit passive aggression, the behavior is deeply ingrained.
Yiu says the behavior can be learned from childhood or situations where communicating sadness, anger or needs is discouraged, or in hyper-competitive households and environments where this behavior is used to “get even.” In cultures with strict, unspoken rules, the behavior can also be used to resist or gain control.
My childhood home was a breeding ground for passive aggressive behavior. My parents were super strict, and my siblings and I could never talk back or the situation would blow completely out of proportion. We also never discussed our feelings. In fact, I only remember hearing the words perdoname (forgive me) and lo siento (I’m sorry) a few times, and I don’t remember those words being part of my vocabulary either.
Instead, we communicated best when making pointed jokes or being sarcastic and loud. Even now, a decade after I moved out, it’s still how we talk to each other. Since we know our most embarrassing true selves, this makes for great fodder. My family loves to joke, for example, that I only talk to them when I need a favor. And it’s usually funny until it’s not anymore.
Los Angeles-based psychologist Kate Balestrieri says that with these kinds of sarcastic jokes, “it can be difficult to find the line between loving jabs and unexpressed anger.” While passive aggressive humor may be the status quo in my family, I’ve began to realize that I can’t bring that into my romantic relationships anymore. Doing so has ended in lots of stupid, unnecessary fights and a sense that we can’t communicate or compromise. After every jab I make, it leaves me feeling frayed.
Passive aggression may seem like a mild form of combativeness, but it can actually have a severely negative impact on relationships. “It creates a very imbalanced relationship dynamic where the person with passive aggressive behaviors always maintain the upper hand,” Yiu says. “It leaves the other partner feeling hurt, helpless, powerless, [full of] self-doubt, and angry.” If left unresolved, passive aggressive behavior can lead to constant fighting or becoming avoidant.
I’m lucky that my relationship isn’t there yet — we’re actually quite happy — but I’ve become increasingly aware that every time I make a “funny” joke or act out in a passive aggressive manner, I put our relationship at risk of bearing the weight of built-up resentment or hostility.
Changing the way I express myself isn’t as easy as knowing passive aggression is wrong; after all, I don’t do it on purpose. I never think to myself, I’m going to make a super passive aggressive joke because I’m mad about this. It’s much more unconscious, so how do I untangle that? Balestrieri says the behavior is a means of self-protection: “When we can couch our wants/needs with passive aggression, we are creating a buffer against vulnerability and intimacy.”
Thankfully, there are ways to curb the behavior. Yiu suggests learning your patterns and triggers, and trying these conflict resolution strategies that can help you manage:
1. Check your feelings. If you’re upset, ask yourself: Am I communicating because I want to better the relationship, or do I want the other to hurt as much or more than I do?
2. Lose the sarcasm. Being direct may take some getting used to — for you and the person you’re being direct with — but it’s ultimately the kinder, more productive approach .
3. Learn your own boundaries. If you don’t want to do something, don’t say you’ll do it. It’s okay to express those feelings aloud, not to mention necessary if you want them to be acknowledged.
4. Don’t take feedback as an attack. And take care to recognize the difference between feedback and judgement, the latter of which is about the other person and not you.
5. See a therapist. If you need help understanding why you don’t feel safe communicating your needs or what triggers hostility, don’t be afraid to seek outside guidance.
If you’re on the receiving end of passive aggressive behavior, don’t join in the hostility. Be firm in your boundaries and invite your partner to have more direct communication.
“If we are honest with ourselves about what we want and need from our partner,” Balestrieri says, “and learn how to communicate that in a loving, assertive and direct way, we liberate ourselves and our partner, as they are getting the information necessary to know how we tick.”
Once you confront your behavior and actively choose to make a change, don’t expect for anything to happen overnight. “Many people will say to me, ‘I’m changing, but my partner isn’t responding/changing,’” Balestrieri says. But relationships are a system, and it takes time to align to new (and healthier) behaviors.
I’m trying to do better. I’m trying not to take things too seriously, and when something upsets me, I’m learning to be more direct about that. Recently, when my boyfriend hinted at staying in again after we’d already made plans, rather than saying “fine” and succumbing to my usual routine, I said, “I was really looking forward to getting dressed and going out for dinner.” I’m also saying sorry more when I make unnecessary “funny” but actually rude jokes. None of it’s complicated, it just takes practice.
My boyfriend isn’t perfect, either, but part of growing up and trying to be a better person is recognizing my flaws and actually doing something about it — not just for him or our relationship, but for myself, too.
Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.