Why Passive-Aggressive Relationships Lead to Loneliness

a couple in a pool a woman looking at a man, who is looking away from her

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It's important to remember that marriage isn’t all fun and games. Even the healthiest relationships will experience conflict and at no time do we want to feel more connected and cared for than during conflict with our partner. And that is something that those married to, or in a relationship with, a passive-aggressive partner don’t experience. People who display passive-aggressive behavior have a hard time expressing their feelings verbally. This results in the suppression of any negative emotions they may experience. Instead of expressing negative emotions verbally, they project those feelings in their behaviors toward a romantic partner. If you're in a relationship with a passive-aggressive partner and you've ever felt lonely in the relationship—you're not alone.

What Is Passive Aggression?

Passive aggression is behavior that is indirectly aggressive rather than directly aggressive. Passive-aggressive people regularly exhibit resistance to requests or demands from family and other individuals often by procrastinating, expressing sullenness, or acting stubborn.

We spoke with marriage and family therapist Darlene Lancer for expert insight on how to detect passive-aggressive behavior in a partner and better understand the motivations behind this behavior, as well as why you may often experience feelings of loneliness as a result.

Meet the Expert

Darlene Lancer, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 30 years of experience working with patients on relationship and codependency issues. She is the author of eight books including Dealing With a Narcissist.

Signs Your Partner May Be Passive Aggressive

Passive-aggressive behavior won’t manifest in a punch to the face, but covert anger can cause you to feel as if you’ve been kicked in the gut. People who exhibit this behavior show their anger by withholding something they know you want, through procrastination, stubbornness, and obstructionism. "Passive-aggressive people act passive but are covertly aggressive," says Lancer.

You may not have witnessed this behavior before marriage or a long-term relationship because people with passive aggression tend to agree with and comply with everything they feel you want. When they reach a point where they no longer want to go along with the status quo that has been set over the years, they will become defiant in their own nonconfrontational way. That is when the disconnection and loss of emotional intimacy are most felt by those married to a passive-aggressive spouse.

Why Some Partners Are Passive Aggressive 

Marriage is a contract, one you enter into expecting to get your needs met during the good times and bad. Passive-aggressive people are pretty good at showing up and meeting needs during good times but not so much during the bad times.

Their trepidation toward conflict coupled with their fear of forming emotional connections keeps them from being a fully engaged partner. "Passive-aggressive partners are generally codependent, and like codependents, suffer from shame and low self-esteem," Lancer says. Attempts to engage with a partner who suffers from this may result in a sense of emotional abandonment.

They can form an intimate connection up to a certain point. They can be self-sacrificing within limits. They can make an emotional investment to a degree. If a spouse always stops short of giving what you need, especially during times of conflict, a marriage can be very lonely. "Because you can’t have an honest, direct conversation with a passive-aggressive partner, nothing ever gets resolved," says Lancer.

There is a twisted logic at play behind someone's need to remain calm and logical during times of conflict. They fear rejection, and by engaging and sharing their emotions during conflict, they feel this will trigger a rejection by someone they love. The thought of anyone being upset with them is unsettling, and when that person is their romantic partner, they see it as emotional destruction.

The more they refuse to engage, the more effort their partner puts into their interactions together. In their mind, the more you try, the more you admire and love them, and so they will not see this situation as negative. Unfortunately, this leads to an emotional disconnect that cannot be bridged until their passive-aggressive behavior is addressed and amended.

How Passive-Aggressive Partners Create Loneliness During Conflict

During an argument, a passive-aggressive person will claim that their partner is overreacting or too aggressive. In the heat of the moment, it is completely normal, healthy even, to be expressive and show emotions. These are traits that they themselves cannot understand, much less demonstrate. They may not see the exercise as a way to solve a problem—only to deepen one; some may even take it as a personal attack. Their refusal to engage in conflict leaves their spouse feeling lonely and responsible for all the marital, relationship, or intimacy problems. "They don’t express their anger openly," Lancer says.

The more expressive and emotional their partner becomes, the calmer and more logical the passive-aggressive person appears to become. This is a mechanism to once again avoid conflict—the "logic" they employ is relative to the situation and does not reflect any mature emotional intelligence. As a result, conflicts don't get resolved, and their spouse is left reeling in negative emotions.

The more detached a passive-aggressive person appears to be during conflict, the more anxiety will manifest in their partner over the perceived emotional investment into their relationship. Spouses and partners should be the most important people in each other's lives, able to navigate marital conflict and connect emotionally. A passive-aggressive partner is capable of making a connection but only up to a certain point. When they begin to feel unsafe with their own skewed emotions, they disconnect and leave their partner with doubt in themselves and the relationship.

The passive-aggressive person retreats completely and their partner is left to pick up the pieces. Nothing ever gets resolved, and such behavior sends a clear message that they are unwilling to meet halfway in the marriage or relationship. This feeling for the partner is comparable to rejection, but the passive-aggressive partner doesn’t see it that way. They still love their partner but will forget what that means when they begin to feel threatened, thus starting the chain reaction of conflict-avoidance, emotional distance, and long-term relationship woes.

How to Handle a Passive-Aggressive Partner

Addressing these issues with a passive-aggressive partner can be difficult given their aversion to conflict and predisposition to detachment, but it's not impossible. Lancer suggests approaching the matter with an assertive nature, neither becoming reactive to their response (or lack thereof) and parenting them through nagging nor being overly aggressive and shaming them. If you have difficulty successfully getting through to your partner, consider seeking professional help and involving a relationship therapist or counselor. Regardless of the solution that best fits your relationship and concerns, Lancer emphasizes the importance of setting boundaries with obvious consequences as failure to do so only encourages passive-aggressive behavior.

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