We’ve all heard about passive-aggressive people, and most of have probably called someone passive-aggressive (at least in our thoughts). But in my research, I discovered that passive aggression isn’t what most think it is. Internet and other “experts” are a bit mixed up when it comes to this term – and so are the rest of us.

So what does “passive-aggressive” really mean?

In theory, it’s pretty simple: “active” aggression involves doing things, while “passive” aggression is about what we don’t (or won’t) do.

But according to Dr. George Simon, who’s written some powerful books on personality disorders, we’ve somehow confused “passive” with “hidden” – or “covert,” which is the term psychologists use. According to Dr. Simon, covert aggression is the underhanded, sneaky kind. Most of it is consciously chosen to either punish or manipulate us, but in a way that allows the aggressor to deny responsibility (and therefore still look good). People who hide their insults in “harmless” jokes or say and do things to make you doubt yourself aren’t being passive at all – just dangerously subtle.

Passive aggression is different. It’s usually covert, but by definition it’s not active. “Forgetting” to do important things is a classic passive-aggressive pattern. Any of us, however, might resort to this in moments of intense frustration or stress. That doesn’t mean that we’re passive-aggressive by nature.

What is a passive-aggressive person like?

A truly passive-aggressive person suffers from a personality disorder – and I do mean “suffers.” Covert aggression is usually conscious and often effective. It works because we don’t see the game being played. It stems from a desire to control someone – or punish the person for refusing to be controlled. People choose to engage in these tactics for selfish reasons.

People who behave in passive-aggressive ways seldom do so with much awareness – and their “tactics” tend to backfire. That’s because passive-aggressive behavior is usually driven by an intense but unconscious inner conflict.

Understanding the Conflict

These people have a great desire to be independent, but they don’t have the confidence to take charge of their lives. Even small failures (like choosing a disappointing movie or restaurant) can trigger feelings of shame. In order to avoid that emotional pain, they look for direction from others. But when they get that direction, they often perceive it as a demand. And since giving in to “demands” can make them feel weak, they resist going along.

So they alternate between trying to rely on others and passively resisting their help or ideas. Simple conversations can be infuriating. You’ve suggested half a dozen restaurants, and there’s something wrong with all of them. You feel like a child play a guessing game – but without the clues.

In case you haven’t noticed, these patterns are not effective. They don’t get people what they want. These folks just can’t win – and neither can you, if you’re in a relationship with one of them.

People with strong passive-aggressive tendencies can be pretty negative, which should come as no surprise. (Could anyone feel positive while living that way?) And when they’re angry, that conflict rears its ugly head again. They express their anger in passive ways, like pouting and forgetting to do important things. The silence tells you that something’s wrong, but you don’t know what. Once again, you feel like you have to guess.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive person

Of course, not everyone who won’t choose a restaurant, forgets to schedule the car for service or goes silent for an hour or two has a personality disorder. Sometimes we just don’t know what we want for dinner. And people often forget to do things because they’re too busy or distracted. And when we’re angry, we may want to keep quiet until we’ve calmed down. And that’s OK. It’s all part of being human.

But if you’re in a relationship with someone who might have a passive-aggressive personality, you’ll need to set some clear boundaries:

  • It’s not about you, so don’t take it personally. You’re dealing with an emotionally fragile person who can’t handle things that most adults don’t even think about. You’re not responsible for anyone else’s choices – or issues. So stop blaming yourself. Right now.
  • If you need to make a decision together, start with something small. To choose a restaurant, consider starting with the type of food (pizza, Chinese, etc.). Then move on to the restaurant. If the other person has no ideas, suggest one that you’d like. If that meets with the usual resistance, ask for a better idea. If there are none, then go with yours. Don’t get hooked into trying to make someone happy whose psyche is wired for the opposite.
  • If the person isn’t your partner or a close friend, make conscious decisions about your time together. It’s likely to be unpleasant, and there isn’t much you can do to change it. Accept that and make choices that work for you.
  • If this person is your partner or close friend, suggest therapy. (If you’re a couple, suggest couple’s therapy.) It can be very helpful, as people with passive-aggressive tendencies are usually unaware of what they’re doing and why. According to Dr. Simon, therapists can help them to get past their fears and start asserting themselves, which is what they need. And if you and your partner have been doing this toxic dance for years, a therapist can help you to heal the hurt and create a healthier relationship.

Remind yourself

It’s important to remember that you’re not responsible for someone else’s unhealthy ways of relating. Don’t get hooked into trying to make this person happy; you don’t have that kind of power.

You might also remind yourself that these patterns come from a difficult place, and few people have the awareness or emotional maturity to do things differently. They need help, and the good news is that help is available.

But if they choose to continue doing what they’ve always done, you’re not responsible for that, either. Put your boundaries in place and do the best you can. And know that that’s enough.

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