By Terry Gaspard, LICSW
In many cases, relationships are ruled by the routine interactions that couples have during the course of their lives together. These interchanges can either foster healthy communication and loving feelings, or subvert a couples’ chance at building trust, collaboration, and intimacy.
Many of the couples I interview during my counseling sessions demonstrate dynamics that can be described as passive-aggressive. Unfortunately, these patterns often lead to withdrawal and unhappiness and threaten the stability of their union.
Stephanie put it like this, “Josh has a habit of avoiding conversations with me when he feels he’s on the “hot seat” or he fears we might disagree about something. He seems to have a strong desire to win arguments and we are very bad at compromising. He sees me as aggressive and relentless and I view him as shut down.”
Josh responds, “I know this is going to sound bad but Stephanie likes to rehash things and can never just let things go. Then she criticizes me for leaving the room. It’s my way of surviving our battles and staying sane. It’s better for me to walk away than to get mad and retaliate when things get nasty.”
Passive-Aggressive Behavior Takes on Many Forms
In a recent article for the Gottman’s Institute’s website, clinical social worker Laura Silverstein probes one of the more insidious factors that can plague a relationship: passive- aggressiveness. Passive-aggressive behavior takes many forms, and is particularly challenging because it’s often hard to identify, let alone overcome.
Citing Dr. Gottman’s research, Silverstein writes that “people have different values about how they prefer to work through intense emotions. Some people like to talk it out and validate each other’s feelings. Others prefer to let things slide to avoid hurt feelings and long arguments. [Dr. Gottman] named these conflict styles ‘Avoiding ’and ‘Validating.’” Indeed, we all have our own approach to conflict, and we often revert to learned behaviors that proven successful or protected us in past disagreements.
However, one of the problems with the strategy of “avoiding” is that is can lead to passive- aggressive behaviors that are counterproductive to restoring peace in a relationship. While some partners prefer to “let things slide,” the very act of shying away from the root cause of conflict can engender frustration and anger their significant other.
This is particularly true if one half of a couple is prone to “avoiding” and the other “value[s] transparency and open, honest, communication.” The partner practicing “avoiding” may believe they are safeguarding their relationships from blow ups and the kind of conflict that can have lasting effects. But the particular set of behaviors associated with “avoiding” walk a very fine line and frequently become passive-aggressive. And in the long run, this brings about the heightened conflict the passive-aggressive partner seeks to avoid.
For instance, when Josh avoids communicating with Stephanie, he may believe he’s protecting their relationship, but he’s actually fueling her resentment by giving her the silent treatment. Once he realized this, he was able to tolerate short conversations with her about their problems, and started asking for a break when things were getting heated or he couldn’t listen to Stephanie anymore without getting defensive.
Silverstein paints a very relatable picture of passive-aggressiveness, writing that your partner may “give you the silent treatment but then tell you they’re just tired. Or, they say something nice with a lack of warmth. It doesn’t seem authentic, but they get defensive when you question their sincerity. Sometimes a person uses humor to express hostility and then accuses you of being ‘too sensitive.’”
But as with so many regressive behaviors that create conflict between couples, there are tools at your disposal to recognize and move past passive-aggressiveness. First, when cultivating an awareness of these sorts of tactics, Silverstein counsels people to look for some telltale signs: Do you believe that your significant other “is mad at you even though they claim they are not?” Do they “say they are joking, but the jokes aren’t funny?” Do their “smiles or kind words seem disingenuous and insincere?”
If these questions strike a chord and evoke thoughts of the conflict in your relationship, Silverstein advises that you follow a few steps to help move past the passive-aggressive behavior and restore an emotionally honest, productive dialogue with your partner.
Select a Good Time and Place
First, you might attempt to foster the kind of communication you desire by choosing “a time and place to talk to your partner.” When doing so, “make sure you are both calm, relaxed, and free from other obligations or distractions” according to Silverstein.
For instance, when Stephanie walks in the door (after a long day teaching second graders), she is often full of energy and wants to interact with Josh. On the other hand, he likes to read the newspaper or watch the news and take a slower start up to their evening. When Stephanie, turns toward Josh and says, “Can we talk over dinner, I have something important to discuss with you,” this is more effective than trying to engage in the hallway when she first walks in the door, while he’s distracted.
Use a Gentle Start Up
Next, employ Dr. Gottman’s “Gentle Start Up” method “to raise your concerns thoughtfully and respectfully by filling in the blanks. I feel ______ about ______ and I need _____.” Finally, try to “listen closely to the response and keep speaking in first person (e.g., using ‘I ’statements) if your partner gets defensive. If they say they were only joking, don’t accuse them of lying. Instead, explain that the jokes aren’t funny to you and feel hurtful.”
In the case of Stephanie and Josh, Stephanie learned to start conversations with comments like “If you have time to chat, can we talk about our camping trip, it would help me stay organized and calm.” Then is Josh seems resistant or avoids the conversation, she could say “I feel stressed about our camping trip and I need feedback from you to help me get started on packing.”
With these strategies in mind, and sharpening your focus to identify the signs of passive- aggressive behavior before it creates further conflict, it is possible to mend fences more quickly, connect with your partner in a productive way, and make it possible to truly hear each other’s concerns in an environment that is safe and supportive for both of you.
Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on this website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True in 2020 and is the winner of American Book Fest’s 2020 Best Book Award in Self-Help Relationships.