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April 11, 2013

How to Handle Passive-Aggressive Behavior

IStock_0rollingeyeXSmallI work with couples all the time who are impacted by the sting of passive-aggressive behaviors, which is why I’m writing this post. This post is for those people who are friends with, living with or family members of people who deal with anger and upsets in passive-aggressive ways. 

Here are the best tips I know for ways to address this kind of behavior head on, using compassionate accountability rather than a hammer. 

  • When in doubt, check it out. One of the crazy-making things about passive-aggression is that it’s seldom acknowledged yet often felt; it’s “hidden” anger. The first move, therefore, is to take the covering off the anger simply by naming it, “I’m making up that you’re mad because I asked you to help. Are you?” The more you name it, the more you increase the other person’s consciousness—and have your own back. 
  • Don’t mind-read. The work for people who struggle with being passive-aggressive is learning to speak their truth in a direct and purposeful way rather than indirectly and unconsciously. Do not alter your behaviors based on what you imagine the other person is upset about. Tell them when they’re ready to talk to you about what’s upsetting them that you’re open to hearing them. Until then, don’t chase them to try to make them feel better.
  • Check your responses. Be sure that on your end, you are respectful. It’s not uncommon for passive-aggression to show up with people who struggle with overt aggression and reactivity. You are responsible for being safe in your relationships...and yelling and screaming is not safe. Clean it up.
  • Practice compassionate accountability. Have empathy for your partner’s struggle with conflict while also holding them accountable for handling it responsibly and respectfully. Know when to check it out, make a request for change and/or set a limit. Do all of the above using a grounded powerful strength (GPS), not an aggressive strength.
  • Be the mirror. When you feel the sting of people side-swiping (biting comments, rolling eyes, silencing, snide remarks) simply hold up a figurative mirror and name what they’re doing. Three examples include: “You’re rolling your eyes;” “Wow, that was biting;” “You won’t even look in my direction.” 
  • Have an honest conversation. Find a good time to have an honest conversation about the impact of the passive-aggressive behaviors on you and your relationship. Be clear about what you would like to see be different and what you will do about it if it doesn’t change (e.g. “If this doesn’t change, I want to separate” or “I will no longer chase you down to see if something’s the matter. From now on, I will assume if you’re not speaking about a problem, then everything is ok.”
  • Explain the degree of seriousness involved.  If you’re thinking of leaving the marriage because of this issue, state that. The other person has the right to know how high the stakes are so they can decide how much they’re willing to lose. 

Challenge: Although passive aggression can be extremely frustrating, yelling and complaining about it just keeps it going. Be calm and forthright in your approach and deal with it head on and in a respectful manner. When talking doesn’t work, know when to set limits and up the ante when necessary. Good luck!

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