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Is your partner’s behavior crazy-making? Does s/he frequently make promises, not keep them, and magically make it your fault? Passive-aggressive people do this.

My client, Brenda, was telling me that when she was really ill recently, she asked her husband, Brent, to help with the alarming pile of dirty dishes. Brent agreed and, within ten minutes, Brenda heard this mumbling from the kitchen:

I hate doing dishes. Isn’t enough that I work all day and bring in money? Why should I have to do this after work? Why can’t she ask one of her so-called friends to take care of this?”

And five minutes later, Brent was elsewhere, dishes undone. Seems amazing, but it happens in the best of unregulated passive-aggressive families!

What makes it passive-aggressive?

The lack of honesty and assertiveness. Brent seemed willing to help. He agreed to do the dishes. Then, he passively let it be known that he felt “put upon.” He twisted the situation to make it Brenda’s issue and walked out on the job.

Here’s where things went sideways:

Brent, being passive-aggressive, could not or would not, tell the truth about his preferences, feelings or, even, intended actions. He regularly won’t say exactly what he means, and then he blames Brenda if (a) she misunderstands him, (b) questions him, or strangely enough,  (c) if she counts on him. He never speaks his truth in the moment. He lets his actions say it for him…eventually. That’s crazy-making. It’s definitely not partnership.

Bored Couple Having Relationship IssuesPassive-aggressive people are reluctant to assert themselves directly, in firm, tactful, immediate, and preferably, considerate ways.

They are afraid of asserting themselves because they don’t want to upset things in the moment because it might lead to a confrontation they do not want. Because of their fear, they prefer to postpone the inevitable confrontation. Strange, but true!

Passive-aggressive people want to avoid conflict, challenge, disagreement, or possible attack, so, they don’t tell the truth up front. They find a back door to give voice to their feelings: “I hate doing dishes and you should never have asked me to do them.”  It is under-handed. You feel tricked or betrayed.

Passive-aggressive people are not really passive. They are indirectly aggressive, and they often get more skilled with age…especially when no one stops dancing with them!

If you recognize the crazy-making behavior in this scenario, and it surfaces often in your relationship, you may well be caught up in the passive-aggressive dance. It’s important to know that this behavior will continue as long as you keep dancing. You have to learn to leave the floor.

The passive-aggressive person needs another to be the object of his or her hostility. Your partner chose you because s/he believes it’s possible to resist your demands and expectations…and you’ll let it happen. The stage is set for the never-ending, passive-aggressive dance!

Four Essential Steps to Stop the Passive-Aggressive Dance:

  1. Know yourself well and examine your part in the relationship.
  2. Know, clarify, express and maintain your boundaries.
  3. Be willing to consistently communicate your thoughts, feelings, desires and needs.
  4. State what you will do when the passive-aggressive behavior shows up.

So, for my client, Brenda, I suggested she might try saying this the next time:

BrentI truly appreciate your help while I am unable to do things myself. Feeling dependent is not my favorite thing, but having you pitch in happily takes the sting out of it. I would never ask you to do something for me unless I really needed your help. Could we agree that you will not undertake to do anything for me that you cannot–or will not–do?” 

Brenda was quite taken aback by the directness I suggested. It takes two to be passive-aggressive. One has to stop. Passive-aggressiveness will continue to plague your relationship unless you take definitive, assertive action.

If what’s going on with your partner is crazy-making for you, take charge of your part in the dance. Share what is going on within you: your thoughts, feelings, needs and wants. Express and maintain your boundaries. And, let your partner know that there is one dance you’ll be sitting out, while suggesting you’re willing to practice a new one!

Dr. Rhoberta Shaler

Recovering a once-great relationship is more than merely possible. Over the course of her lifetime, Rhoberta Shaler, PhD, The Relationship Help Doctor, has shaped the steps that will provide you with the basis for rebuilding, starting, or restarting the kind of relationship you long for: one grounded in trust, honesty, respect and acceptance. She helps her couples kindle or re-ignite their caring communication skills to honor and respect important needs and boundaries, while gently unfolding truth, trust, love and intimacy. Her latest book and weekend retreat, KAIZEN FOR COUPLES: Smart Steps to Save, Sustain & Strengthen Your Relationship, are great starts to a more loving, empowering partnership.  If you think your partner might be passive-aggressive, learn more at her free

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