Anger is a natural emotion, and the most constructive way to express and address it is through clear and direct communication. Outright aggression is easy to identify when someone is upset or angry. Displays of anger might include yelling or slamming one's hands on the table. On the other hand, passive aggression can be trickier to determine because anger is expressed indirectly or covertly.
What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
Passive-aggressive behavior is when a person expresses negative feelings or aggression in an unassertive way through things like procrastination, stubbornness, and unwillingness to communicate.
"Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of communication that relies upon indirect expression of negative feelings, either verbally or nonverbally," explains Dr. Jennifer McDonald, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Olympia, Washington.
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Below, Dr. McDonald, as well as therapist Emily Griffin, explore various signs that point to passive aggression. Plus, why people act passive-aggressively, and how to respond to a passive-aggressive spouse or partner to create a healthier, more open relationship.
Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Pinpointing passive-aggressive behavior can be difficult because oftentimes the aggressor—whether knowingly or not—uses subtle language or behaviors that aren't immediately recognized by the recipient that something is wrong. Common signs of passive aggression include:
Withholding or Withdrawing
A common negative behavior a passive-aggressive partner might display is withholding communication or intimacy, or withdrawing emotionally, which can include the silent treatment. "Withholding communication is another form of expressing anger and asserting power passively," writes licensed marriage and family therapist, Darlene Lancer, JD, for Psychology Today.
Using Sarcasm or Back-Handed Compliments
A sarcastic response to a request from a partner could be a sign of passive-aggressive behavior. Your partner might say, "Yes, of course, anything for you sweetheart," when asked to take out the trash, when they really mean, "Nope, all you ever do is order me around." A back-handed compliment (or an insult couched in a compliment) might sound like, "I'm surprised you took out the trash without me asking you to," or "You look so put together when you put the effort in."
"Forgetting" to Do Something or Procrastinating
"Surprising signs of passive-aggressive behavior can include things like procrastination (e.g. putting off that email to your boss they're expecting; waiting until the last minute to submit something) and a behavior I like to call 'convenient forgetting,'" Dr. McDonald says. This might look like standing up your significant other on a date and then sending a last-minute excuse about why you didn't show, Dr. McDonald explains. "It's plausible enough to believe, but for the passive-aggressive person, it's their ticket to controlling that environment."
Saying or Pretending a Situation is 'Fine' When It Really Isn't
Another indication of passive-aggressive behavior happens when you or your partner insist everything is fine when it really isn't. Sometimes, this behavior is attached to the expectation that our partner read our mind, or intuit that we're upset rather than plainly stating so.
"Our partners are not mind readers, and when we become upset by their lack of mind-reading abilities and engage in the silent treatment or become combative, we essentially begin a spiral in which we fight about fighting—and not about the issue that ultimately caused us to feel upset, depressed, or hurt," writes Sean M. Horan, PhD, a faculty member at Fairfield University who researches communication in dating relationships, for Psychology Today.
Doing Things Inefficiently or Incompletely
Leaving tasks or commitments incomplete, or going about them inefficiently, such as waiting weeks to schedule important appointments or leaving the dishwasher half-emptied is another sign of passive aggression. This is a form of retaliation and expression of contempt and is not a productive way to get one's needs met.
Why People Act Passive Aggressively
There are a number of biological and environmental factors that might contribute to passive-aggressive behavior. Stress or depression can be a contributor, as are learned behaviors attributed to how a person grew up. For example, an individual may have been brought up in an environment where anger was not an acceptable emotion to express or was raised in a household where passive aggression was the norm.
"For someone who grew up in a really controlling environment where they didn't feel like they had a voice, acting in passive-aggressive ways may have been a means of gaining some kind of power or control," Dr. McDonald says.
Ongoing passive-aggressive behavior may create or perpetuate resentment in a relationship and ultimately erode it. If you recognize passive-aggressive behavior in your partner, there are constructive ways to address it over time.
How to Respond to Passive Aggressive Behavior
The best way to respond to passive-aggressive behavior is through clear, assertive communication. Additionally, it's important to recognize the role you may be playing by keeping this pattern of behavior going, Dr. McDonald says. "Then, when you're in a place where you feel solid, you can confront your partner directly. State the behavior, why it's problematic, and then make really clear boundaries for further communication." Try not to respond when you're angry or defensive. "This is just going to generate more passive-aggressive behavior coming your way," Dr. McDonald says.
It's important to address passive aggressive behavior with assertiveness skills, otherwise, it may lead to more conflict and less intimacy. This can become a frustrating cycle.
Likewise, ignoring passive-aggressive behavior isn't the way to go either. "This shows the aggressor that you are okay with this behavior to continue," says Emily Griffin, a Maryland-based mental health therapist. "One caveat is if this is an abusive relationship. Standing up to someone who is abusive, may lead to more abuse, so it is recommended to seek counseling or domestic violence services to ensure safety."
Otherwise, a counselor may be needed to help couples navigate a new way to communicate with each other. "Most of the time, couples counseling is needed to help both partners understand the communication cycles they are in and how to openly communicate their feelings instead of going straight to 'punishing' the other person with passive-aggressiveness," says Griffin. While avoiding confrontation may prevent any hard feelings in the short-term, it might breed them in the long-run. Individual and couples counseling can be helpful for those who are willing to seek that support.
American Psychological Association. "Control Anger Before it Controls You." March, 2022.
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Hopwood CJ, Morey LC, Markowitz JC, et al. The construct validity of passive-aggressive personality disorder. Psychiatry. 2009;72(3):256-267. doi:10.1521/psyc.2009.72.3.256