5 Ways to Tell If You’re a Passive-Aggressive Spouse
Has your spouse accused you of being passive-aggressive? Maybe they say you’re manipulative. Maybe they tell you that you never speak your mind. Sometimes it may seem like you’ve gained the upper hand in disagreements, but it still feels like the relationship never wins. Are you passive-aggressive or being falsely accused? Well, let’s look at a few ways to shed more light on whether you’re passive-aggressive or not.
What is passive-aggressive behavior?
Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D says, “Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.“1
Think of it this way: You’re expressing your negative feelings aggressively, negatively. Often, this asserts your control, power, or desire to punish your spouse. However, it’s done passively or indirectly. If you’re not directly naming it, your spouse may not be sure what the real issue is.
Aggressive doesn’t necessarily mean loud, forceful, or demonstrative. But it is often intentional and pointed directly toward your spouse.
Different Levels of Passive-Aggressiveness
1. Passive-Aggressive Moments.
Many people have moments of passive-aggressiveness. Sometimes, you just don’t have the emotional energy to deal with a conflict, so you use passive-aggressive behavior to keep control of the issue. You may not demonstrate this behavior often, but every now and then, you might pull it out of your bag of tricks. You probably know it’s not the healthiest thing in the world, but the alternative at the moment isn’t worth it.
2. Passive-Aggressive Habits.
Being passive-aggressive is your primary way of addressing issues with your spouse. You may even find it hard to initiate a conversation about an issue head-on. You may have become “effective” at passive-aggressive behavior. It seems to get you what you want.
3. Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association defines this as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.” 2,3 This person feels impossible to tackle conflict with. Their passive-aggressive nature spreads throughout every part of their life.
What does passive-aggressive behavior look like?
Here are some ways being passive-aggressive may play out.
1. Sarcastic, snarky comments.
On its own, the comment you make may sound like a compliment. But the context is clearly meant to be negative. You and your spouse haven’t had a real conversation in weeks, but you hear your spouse chopping it up with one of their friends. You say, “You two sure do have a lot to talk about.” On its own, it seems innocent. Perhaps you’re hoping they feel the sharpness of your emotions. You feel neglected, maybe a bit jealous. However, instead of coming out and saying what you feel, you make a sarcastic remark.
2. Half-doing tasks.
Your spouse’s schedule has changed, and they aren’t doing things around the house, leaving it to you. You resent their schedule change, or you feel like they’re taking you for granted. Instead of bringing it up, you half-heartedly do the tasks like yard work, laundry, or cleaning. It’s obviously not up to standard. You’re trying to prove a point.
3. Silence or distance. (I struggle with this one.)
You gain control by not talking about anything of substance. Your conversations become surface-level or just about facts. Nothing personal or vulnerable. You build a wall between you and your spouse. You’re expressing your anger, resentment, displeasure, etc., through silence. This gives you control of the situation or at least makes you feel like you’re in control.
4. Agreeing, but not really agreeing.
Your spouse wants to go to the in-laws, but you don’t want to go. Your spouse knows you don’t want to go, and you can’t even believe they’ve asked you to come along. Instead of sharing your true desire, you agree to go not out of compassion or being a team player but out of resentment. You’re upset because they should know that you’re not ok with going.
5. Ignoring, putting off, or procrastinating.
Your spouse has asked you to do something. Your negative feelings toward your spouse may have nothing to do with what they’ve asked. However, you choose to express your negative emotions by continually putting off their request while never sharing the real reason.
Signs You May Be Passive-Aggressive… Self-Reflection Questions
While you self-reflect, consider…
- How do you address conflict in your marriage? Do you clearly communicate your thoughts, emotions, and desires, or do you drop hints? Do you exhibit any of the previously mentioned behaviors? Is ist possbile that you simply avoid conflict while sending sharp signals that there is conflict?
- Do you have negative thoughts about your spouse that motivate how you respond to them? How do they know those thoughts? Or do they? Is it possible you have built-up anger or resentment that comes out through simple requests?
- Do you usually control the when and where you deal with marital problems? You may be using passive-aggressive behavior to control or manipulate your spouse instead of working together.
Understanding how you deal with issues in your marriage can help your marriage thrive through difficult times.
If you come to the conclusion that you are a passive-aggressive spouse, that’s progress! Even if you don’t, this can open up meaningful conversations with your spouse to figure out how to handle conflict well in your marriage. The ultimate goal here isn’t about pointing out faults; it’s about transforming conflict in your marriage into building blocks for intimacy. Becoming a better version of yourself in that process is a strong byproduct I’ll take any day.
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Newsflash: Sometimes your spouse is going to make you plain mad.
(Not to mention you’ll inevitably do something to annoy the heck out of them.)
Something is said, something is done without you being informed, something is left undone…
And the blood starts to boil.
Being angry is perfectly normal, and usually, things can be worked through. Mistakes and misunderstandings are a normal part of any relationship, especially a marriage.
But it’s how a person responds in their anger that can help find a resolution or derail the marriage train. Passive-aggressiveness in marriage not only throws the relationship off its tracks, but it’s also downright destructive.
Passive-aggressive behavior in marriage is when a person expresses anger or annoyance in an indirect way.1
- One person forgot to put the dishes away. The other says, Wow, look at all these dishes in here. Sure would be nice if they were in the cabinet where they belong…
- One said something that embarrassed the other last night in front of friends. The embarrassed person hasn’t spoken a word to the other since thinking their silence will wake their spouse up to what they did wrong.
- One spouse left their dirty socks on the bed when they came home. The other nonchalantly throws them in the trash can and walks away with a smile.
A passive-aggressive response in marriage is marked with quiet bitterness. It’s often a way to punish the offender emotionally, letting them “wallow in their sin” for a while. The “offended” seemingly avoids the conflict while putting the “offender” in a place of guilt, shame, and discomfort. It’s a power-play, a form of manipulation, and a highly ineffective way of dealing with conflict and strengthening a marriage.2, 3
Just in case I haven’t been too clear on this yet: Passive-aggressiveness is not good for a marriage.4
And yet, we all tend to act passive-aggressively at times. Fortunately, you can avoid it.
How can you and your spouse end passive-aggressive behavior in your marriage?
Talk about the importance of checking your anger before you respond.
It’s essential to pause and examine your emotions. Ask yourself, Okay, how am I feeling toward my spouse right now? I’m obviously frustrated. But am I being bitter? Am I trying to make my spouse feel ashamed or guilty? Am I expressing my feelings in a healthy way?
Agree to avoid dwelling on it.
This is when you replay the thing that has offended you over and over again in your mind. It builds negative energy and makes you even angrier the more you think about it. Decide together to talk about an issue directly, respectfully, and in a timely manner.
Practice addressing an issue directly.
Establish some ground rules for working through more serious issues respectfully. Agree to sincerely express emotions with each other. To avoid ruminating, it might be helpful to have a 24-hour rule. If either of you has any beef with the other, you’ll address it in a civil manner within 24 hours.
Have weekly check-in meetings to resolve hanging issues.
Establish a regular time to meet together over coffee and simply connect. Use that time to calmly get anything out in the open that needs to be hashed out.
- Hey, would you mind putting up the dishes tonight? I think it might’ve been forgotten yesterday.
- Do you remember that thing you said last night? It was a little embarrassing. I know you didn’t mean harm, and I totally forgive you already. But I just wanted you to know how I felt.
- I know this is silly, but leaving socks out really bugs me. Would you mind throwing those in the hamper when you come in from work?
Consider what you each are holding back from the past.
Is there something between you and your spouse in the past that causes passive-aggressiveness to creep into your marriage? Or perhaps from a previous relationship? We sometimes don’t even realize how these events shape how we handle present issues. Wrestling with them isn’t easy, but it helps you.
Choose one of these strategies to work through and talk about as a couple this week. There’s always room to strengthen your marriage, and figuring out how to eliminate passive-aggressiveness is a major step to take toward a healthier relationship.
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3 What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
4 Exhausting Silence: Emotional Costs of Withholding Complaints