Few things are as irksome (and as damaging) to a friendship or romantic relationship as passive aggression. Denying or invalidating emotions, making snide remarks, avoiding contact that may require emotional expression, ghosting as punishment…
These are all behaviors that have absolutely no place in a healthy relationship, so if you find yourself doing any of this, you need to cut it out.
Most of the people who indulge in passive aggression do so because they never learned how to deal with conflict in a mature, responsible manner. It could be that trying to stand up for yourself in the past resulted in abusive responses from your parents or early partners.
It’s understandable where all of this stemmed from, but these behaviors really need to be un-learned if you’re ever to have a healthy connection with another person.
Be Honest, Even If You’re Scared
A classic example of a person who uses passive aggressive behavior is someone who’s afraid that if they tell their partner how they really feel about a situation, they’ll be punished for doing so, or the partner will end up leaving them.
If they’re dating a narcissist, they might find themselves gaslighted, or given the silent treatment (both of which are freaking horrible to contend with), or their partner may get all defensive and start yelling at them.
Both of these scenarios are reason enough for the person to be really honest with themselves about why they’re even with their partner, but choosing to play the passive-aggressive game for the sake of their own wellbeing doesn’t help anyone.
Because they’ll just get more and more resentful of their partner, they won’t get their own needs met, and their partner will resent and punish them in turn somehow, until both sides end up silent, sighing, and breaking things.
The only way to break through this is to be honest.
Now, honesty doesn’t have to be brash and callous: it can be gentle and compassionate. Instead of saying things like, “you make me feel bad about myself when you say _____,” you can turn it around with “I” statements.
“I feel bad about myself when you tell me _______.”
“I need you to be more supportive when ___ happens, and not say things like _____.”
This comes across as less accusatory, and gives your partner the opportunity to show compassion and empathy for your emotions.
“I Was Only Joking”
Some people who have difficulty expressing what they feel are negative emotions, or those that may have the potential to create conflict, will make hurtful comments and try to pass them off as jokes.
What they say is actually exactly what they mean, but if the person on the receiving end seems to be upset, rather than lighthearted, the snarker can backpedal and say that they were only joking.
This, once again, puts them in a position of control: if the one they’re talking to gets upset or hurt, they can be accused of being oversensitive and not being able to take a joke.
Cut this out and replace it with the honest and compassionate approach above.
Don’t Expect Others To Read Your Mind
If you’ve ever been upset with someone and, when asked what it is they’d done to hurt you, you’ve uttered the words, “If you don’t know, I’m not going to bother telling you,” then someone needs to slap you with a trout.
None of us ever know exactly what’s going through another person’s mind, simply because we are not them. Everything in our lives is filtered through a lens of our own personal experience, and as such, we’re going to interpret and process things very differently.
If you’re upset with someone because they’ve done something hurtful, but they don’t seem to realize that they’ve done so, talk to them about it.
They could very well have NO idea that they’ve upset you, because they wouldn’t be upset if they were in that situation. We cannot expect all people to think and feel the same way we do, about anything, and the only way we can have any kind of smooth, healthy relationship is to communicate with our friends and partners.
On a similar note…
Don’t Assume You Can Read Minds
Do you find yourself telling other people what they think or feel instead of asking them? Accusing them of having certain feelings or leanings rather than approaching them from a place of love and empathy?
…do you think there’s a universe in which that kind of behavior is acceptable?
Being accused of something like this without any kind of discussion can cause lasting damage in a personal relationship, so a far better approach is to set aside time to talk to your partner, express that you’re feeling insecure for X reasons, and sort out what’s happening on both sides.
Same goes for friendships, and even parent/child relationships or housemate situations. Before you assume/accuse/attack, stop and consider where these assumptions are coming from. Most of the time, they are insecurities or biases that might have been triggered by an innocuous comment or gesture, so if you find yourself feeling accusatory, take a step back, take a few calming breaths, and try to work out a logical reason as to why you feel the way you do.
You Have No Right To Remain Silent
Giving someone else the silent treatment is an extraordinary act of cowardice. It’s cruel, it’s abusive, and can be more damaging to a person than a physical blow.
Generally, the silent treatment is used by a person who feels like various aspects of their lives are out of their control, so they choose silence as a weapon of control: there will only be communication when THEY agree to grace the other with it, and not until then.
This is disrespectful, dehumanizing behavior, and it’s become far more common in scenarios where the majority of communication between two people takes place online. If you truly care about the other people in your life, then talk to them.
Text them. Email them. Send bitchy snapchats if you’re so upset that it’s the only way you can handle communication, but do something, anything to acknowledge that your friend (or partner) is, in fact, a human being who’s worthy of the most basic amount of human decency on your part.
If you can’t bring yourself to do that, ask yourself why you think you deserve to have these people in your life.
How would you feel if they treated you with this kind of behavior? Most of the people who have passive-aggressive tendencies would go absolutely ballistic if the other person treated them in the same manner… so what, exactly, makes it okay to treat someone else like that? Remember the whole adage to “treat others as you would like to be treated”?
Yeah. That one.
Being introspective and honest with ourselves about our interpersonal skills (or lack thereof) can be really difficult, but it’s the only way that we can grow as people, and as friends/partners.
Those we care about will be a lot happier if we treat them with respect and courtesy, and communicating clearly and openly with others – even if that might make us a bit nervous at times – is a hallmark of a mature, healthy, respectful friendship/relationship.
Ultimately, we thrive best when we have great people in our lives, and if we can encompass all the positive traits we appreciate in other people, then those we care about thrive and are happy in turn.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais region. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.