The quiet and the furious

You need to help your loved one who seethes silently before the repressed fire burns the relationship

Man and woman having dinner-woman not interested

Do you know of a family member, friend, or colleague who repeatedly engages in a few of the following behaviours?

  • Grumbles about the extent of work to be done.
  • Does work in a shoddy manner even though she is capable of doing a better job.
  • Complains about being misunderstood, unappreciated and being taken for granted by others.
  • Is sullen and ends up getting into arguments with others.
  • Resists, complains or feels resentful towards authority figures often out of context.
  • Passively resists fulfilling routine social and occupational tasks.
  • Expresses envy and resentment toward those who are apparently more fortunate and voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune
  • Alternates between hostile defiance and contrition

If you answered yes to say 3 – 4 of these statements, then you could be facing someone who is engaging in passive-aggressive behaviour [PAB].

What is PAB?

Let us understand PAB with the help of Sunny’s example. As a bright and intelligent student, whatever marks Sunny got were never enough for his parents, who constantly nagged him to do even better. Finally, in class 10, Sunny was so fed up of never being able to please his parents, and so angry at their constant nagging, that he made up his mind to not get good marks at all. Although his parents saw him study through the year, Sunny decided to teach them a lesson, and prove to them, once and for all, that he has had enough. He ended up barely getting a first class in his final exams.

This is a classic sign of a person with PAB. A person is said to behave in a passive-aggressive manner when her aggression is not ‘overt’. She rebels through her behaviour. Passive-aggressives protest by not listening or not doing what is expected of them. Usually, their actions rather than words reflect their true feelings. As a result, there is a mismatch between what they say and do. Some typical behaviour traits of people with PAB include:

  • Consistent procrastination: not doing work on time, tendency to postpone or delay work indefinitely.
  • Stubbornness: tendency to act mulish and stubborn without reason.
  • Forgetfulness or absent-mindedness: forgetting critical tasks and things [such as important appointments, meetings, and so forth].
  • Tardiness: arriving late for functions or meetings, missing deadlines.
  • Ineffective or sub-standard work.
  • Sulking or resentful attitude, especially toward authority figures.

How it manifests

Passive-aggressive behaviour typically shows up in response to authority figures—parent, boss, a domineering spouse or an elder sibling. What this means is that dealing with authority is a core issue for people with this problem. On one hand, the person may agree to what you say, but may also show resistance towards that by not following through. And most often, the behaviour is not purposeful or conscious.

While the exact cause of such behaviour is not known, in most cases, early childhood experiences with an authority figure usually result in creating resentment in the person’s mind. For instance, it could be a domineering father who creates feelings of hostility and resentment in the child. She is unable to express her feelings or communicate her resentment any other way. Eventually, she resorts to certain behaviours without being openly aggressive. Over a period of time, these behaviours get reinforced, and the child grows up with these patterns. Families where open expression of negative feelings is not allowed, encourage passive-aggressive behaviour.

However, it is important to realise that most of us indulge in some PAB from time to time. There are times when a woman may end up cooking poorly in response to her husband’s criticism or when a person delays a project because he is angry at his boss’s unfairness, or does a half-baked job, and ends up suffering more. Don’t be in a hurry to label anyone’s behaviour as being passive aggressive. There is some passive aggression in all of us, but thankfully, it surfaces only occasionally.

Passive aggression becomes a problem only if someone consistently behaves in that manner. It is often self-destructive [like in Sunny’s case] and also spells trouble for those living with the person. In terms of interpersonal relationships, PAB most commonly shows up in a parent-child or marital relationship, but can also manifest among siblings and friends. It is also commonly seen in response to superiors at the workplace. Understanding that dealing with authority is at the core of such behaviour makes it easy for you to deal with a person with PAB.

How PAB affects

The individual:

  • Low self-esteem: As a result of the PAB, the person tends to usually get negative feedback from her environment, which, in turn, lowers her self-esteem.
  • Difficulty making and maintaining friendships: Inconsistent behaviour on part of the person tends to put her friends off. In addition, those with PAB also have difficulty communicating clearly, which further alienates friends and family.
  • Lack of intimate relationships: The person’s tendency to blame others for her problems results in a lack of intimacy in relationships as she usually finds it difficult to let go of control.
  • Low life satisfaction: Typically, those with PAB are dissatisfied with life as well as with relationships. This dissatisfaction runs deep, further creating more feelings of being deprived of opportunities, which in turn fuels their behaviour.

The relationship:

  • Lack of trust: The partner of such a person usually finds it difficult to trust her. Because of their inconsistency, those with passive aggression come across as unreliable, and their partners often don’t know how far to trust them.
  • Anger and resentment: These emotions permeate the entire fabric of the relationship, and every interaction further aggravates the problem.
  • ‘Taken-for-granted’ loop: Unfortunately, both the parties feel exploited in the relationship. The individual showing PAB feels taken for granted all the time, often without reason. Over a period of time, the other person too, starts feeling exploited and misused.

How to deal with it

Working togetherSo if you have to deal with a family member, friend, colleague or relative who shows passive-aggressive behaviour, here’s what you can do to help her and your self.

  • Encourage the person to take responsibility for her actions. In a calm manner, show her the inconsistency between her words and actions, and help her take responsibility for both. Since such people are not aware of their behaviour, pointing out the inconsistency brings in some awareness into the matter.
  • Urge her to communicate her thoughts and feelings in an open manner. Communication and expression is a problem area for these people, and often, it is the repressed emotions that cause the behaviour. Thus, because they are unable to say that they are upset with something you have done, they in turn behave in a manner that would upset or disappoint you. In order to break this loop, it is important to make them communicate their feelings and thoughts openly. Thus, create an environment in which they feel comfortable expressing their feelings.
  • Express your own feelings in a clear, precise and gentle manner. Communicate how the person’s behaviour makes you angry, upset or disappointed when she does not deliver her promise. One of the best ways to encourage a free flow of communication is to be calm when dealing with the person.
  • In line with the above, it is also important to teach people with passive-aggressive traits proper communication skills. This can be done either through role modelling, or by formally undergoing some communication training. Eventually, it is only through repeated efforts and practice that they can learn to communicate effectively.
  • Teach them to be assertive. Point out that there is a way to say ‘No’ in a rational and calm manner, rather than saying ‘Yes’, and not living up to their promise. This can be tough for such people, and thus demands patience and efforts on your part.
  • Help them realise how self-sabotaging and self-defeating their behaviour is—it causes maximum pain and harm to themselves.
  • Encourage them to seek counselling, if the problems are deep-rooted.

Finally, it is important to understand that there are shades of passive aggression that can be found in people, ranging from low passive aggression to a full blown personality disorder. In fact, most challenges in relationships come from passive-aggressive behaviours that people engage in. This realisation is important in breaking through the problem, and arriving at a higher level of understanding in the relationship.

This was first published in the September 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Samindara Hardikar-Sawant
Samindara Hardikar-Sawant is a clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist. She is the director of Disha Counseling Center in Mumbai and is the author of Taming the Tornado: A Parent Manual to Manage the ADHD Child.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here