Coping with passive-aggressive partners
- THE AUSTRALIAN
I was in a relationship, many years ago, that drained the life out of me. Everything looked perfect from the outside. My partner was handsome, kind, intelligent and, most of all, helpful.
When I was sick I was waited on; when I needed support — emotional or physical — I was given it; when anything needed to be done, all I needed to do was ask. And our sex life was great.
And yet I felt miserable, questioning: “Am I a malcontent? Why do I feel anxious about being with him, why do I cry so much? Am I making this relationship something bad because I can’t be happy?” I believed I was at fault.
It wasn’t until I finally had the courage to leave two years later that I woke up from the illusion. I read a book, Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression from the Bedroom to the Boardroom by psychologist Scott Wetzler, which was published in the early 1990s. And from that I recognised the telltale signs.
In short, passive-aggression is a chronic disorder where a person — male or female equally — seems to comply with the desires and needs of others, but passively resists, harbouring latent feelings of resentment and anger under the surface — creating “sugar-coated abuse”.
A passive-aggressive partner — male or female, friend or lover — often uses the words “I am there for you”. Yes, they are. But don’t think you’re getting away with it. Following a bout of “helpfulness”, the passive-aggressive person will resent their goodness, feeling they have been bullied or taken advantage of. And then they will punish you. The manipulation is that they will only be of help when you “ask” them so they can set up the dynamic: “I’ve been nagged or forced to do something I don’t want to.”
Punishments include doing the task badly, forgetting a crucial element — not bringing a credit card; forgetting to lock the front door, or that a husband hates sweet potato (Oops, sorry); chronic lateness; procrastinating. Your anger makes you feel bad. You tell yourself you should feel grateful because he/she is “trying so hard”. He’s “Mr Nice Guy” to the world — which is what makes him so dangerous. They are emotional assassins.
Nice, loving. Then suddenly, just because it’s Friday, there is withdrawing, the silent treatment (“I’m just depressed”), diminishing you (staring at the TV), being disrespectful, not picking up the mobile, withholding affection. With my ex there might be some sarcastic comment about my looks or incompetence, but hey it was all a joke, cuddles, sweetness, a big kiss — “Come on, you have no sense of humour … you are a drama queen making an argument. See that’s why I don’t talk to you!” I was always to blame.
The old DSM (IV) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used for the standard classification of mental disorders, described it as unexpressed anger — characterised by a habitual pattern of passive resistance to expected work requirements, opposition, stubbornness, underperforming. Resistance is exhibited by such indirect behaviours as procrastination, forgetfulness, and purposeful inefficiency — especially in reaction to demands.
According to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, it is possibly a condition of the frontal cortex but needs further study. Psychologists list passive-aggressive traits as: learned helplessness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate/repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks, manipulation, compulsive lying, being obstructive, giving insincere apologies to dismiss the partner, self-defeating behaviours (prone to pyrrhic victories).
I made excuses for my passive-aggressive ex because he was often kind. The fact is with most abusers, you wouldn’t stay if it was all bad. There were wonderful times. But I would never know when he might turn into a dark thundercloud. I felt powerless against the unpredictability of the weather; which is how covert abusers control you. They create an unstable environment and you cling to them for safety without seeing that they are the cause. It’s like climbing on to a leaking boat but you can’t see the hole.
Sadly, they are passive-aggressive towards themselves, too. They sabotage any chance they have of lasting happiness or being loved.
A few years ago, during my sex and relationships radio program on Triple M, a psychologist rang me and spoke of a female patient who kept buying her husband the wrong cereal even though he’d beg for the one he liked. It ended in divorce once her veiled hostility was uncovered during therapy.
A married friend of mine talks of the lack of compliments and calls her relationship “death by a thousand cuts”.
“Recently I made a big effort to look sexy. I asked if I looked good. ‘Yeah, I like the colour of those boots,’ he said and my heart sank. There’s lying too about stupid things. I never know where I stand. Is he cheating? I never feel safe.
“He doesn’t feel like sex. He says he’s tired, sick, busy. He seems to want me to think his excuses are untrue so I’ll feel insecure. One night he was looking at me strangely and said without emotion ‘I do love you’ as if he’d been contemplating otherwise. I asked, ‘What do you mean by that?’ And he got icy cold. ‘I said I love you … what do you want of me … You can make an argument out of a compliment …’ I’m so confused. I can never put my finger on it.”
In her confronting book The Emotionally Abused Woman: Overcoming Destructive Patterns and Reclaiming Yourself, psychotherapist Beverly Engel identifies various categories of victims: rescuers, drama or love junkies, martyrs, pleasers, co-dependents — so we can see how our own patterns of enabling are part of the dynamic.
Passive-aggression is now considered workplace bullying, including snide remarks that erode self-esteem, smiling with contempt, not listening or responding when being spoken to.
Paula De Angelis says in her book Blindsided: Recognizing and Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Leadership in the Workplace that if managers are passive-aggressive in their behaviour towards staff, it can end up stifling team creativity.
It’s learned behaviour that usually comes from childhood — perhaps alcohol or drug-addicted parents, or an environment where it was not safe to express frustration or anger.
According to Wetzler, the game is always about regaining control and relationships can become a battleground.
Online responses to his book are very telling, with one reader saying their partner was a “child” who “wouldn’t acknowledge responsibility for anything”.
“My ex was intelligent and charming. But (there was) the solitude, the procrastination, silent treatment, inability to hold a job, supreme sense of entitlement, refusal to argue or engage in any discussion of issues, blaming me for his failures … using abstinence as a weapon. In 10 years of marriage, my husband never uttered my name.”
Wetzler says passive-aggressive people can be helped. But they need to be prepared to admit their patterns. Their partner must also not get caught in the game and be reactive.
Ha! Easier said than done for those men and women who haven’t had sex for months. From experience I am of the simple opinion: If it tastes bad, it’s bad for you.
Passive aggression leads to domestic violence and suicide. Telling men not to hit women is a waste of time
Well, I haven’t had sex for years but I’m damned if I’ll be lured back into the ridiculous games women play.
It seems that people who are passive aggressive may lack insight into their behavior and if I have an open mind to the possibility that I may be passive aggressive, how would I find out and modify my behavior?
Have any women responded to this? Looks like only men to me – and surely that, in itself, is telling.
Wow Ruth, reading the comments below indicates that your article didn’t get the reaction you no doubt expected.
That sure backfired.
Possibly if you take on board many of the constructive criticisms below and try a re write it will be a better balanced article worthy of the The Aus.
Maybe some counselling too.
very good article, ruth and well researched
Isn’t this article itself a good example of passive-aggression on Ruth’s part? “I’ll get back at my ex-partner: I’ll tell the world what I think of him and what I think he was doing to me.”
Ignore the critical comments. You have written a good article – there are some complete bastards out there!
The most passive aggressive people I have encounters have been women.
Its no wonder so many relationships these days break-up, with the built up of intolerance , the expectation of perfection in your partner and this view that even having a bad day or feeling off is a form of persistent abuse. What chance is there for a lifelong relationship of give and take nowadays.
A lot of relationship problems come down to a lack of sexual intimacy (not lack of sex as such necessarily). This is really a social problem. We live in a sex-soaked society in which intimacy is a scarce commodity. Men and women alike are becoming frigid, unfeeling, unresponsive individuals who are no longer capable of the self-exposure necessary for true love to flourish. They are locking up inside themselves nasty personalities that cannot bear the light of day. We need social change to cure this problem. I personally don’t think psychological analysis will fix it.
Why would you ask if you look good? That’s just asking for trouble and what’s wrong with him liking the colour of the boots? Also for heaven’s sake, buy your own cereal.
And of course it’s the frontal cortex. That’s the only one we control.
What I find most insulting about this article is that is based on the premise that only men are passive aggressive;despite the authors insincere attempt to make the issue gender neutral. I acknowledge that men have have their faults in this area but no more than women. If you complain that your wife is nagging you are labelled sexist, disrespectful and so most men men say nothing. Believe you me it is cheaper than divorce!
Ruth, your third last paragraph – describing the intelligent and charming ex who had the supreme sense of entitlement, couldn’t hold down a job and blaming the partner for his failures is an example of the quintessential psychopath. But always remember, these people are not mentally ill, they are not insane, they’re just despicable bastards to be avoided at all cost. I know, I used to work with one! Best wishes, Larry
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