Passive-aggressive people act passive, but express aggression covertly.
They’re basically obstructionist, and try to block whatever it is you want. Their unconscious anger gets transferred onto you, and you become frustrated and furious. Your fury is theirs, while they may calmly ask, “Why are you getting so angry?” and blame you for the anger they’re provoking.
Passive-aggressive partners are generally codependent, and like codependents, suffer from shame and low self-esteem. Their behavior is designed to please to appease and counter to control. You may be experiencing abuse, but not realize it, because their strategy of expressing hostility is covert and manipulative, leading to conflict and intimacy problems.
Personality disorders are persistent and enduring. According to the American Psychological Association passive-aggression was considered a personality disorder in the DSM-IV:
This behavior commonly reflects hostility which the individual feels he dare not express openly. Often the behavior is one expression of the patient’s resentment at failing to find gratification in a relationship with an individual or institution upon which he is over-dependent. (APA, 1968, p. 44, code 301.81)
The DSM-IV ascribed the disorder to someone with negative attitudes and passive resistance to requests for adequate performance, indicated by at least 4 of these traits not due to depression:
• Passively resists fulfilling routine tasks
• Complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated
• Is sullen and argumentative
• Scorns and criticizes authority
• Expresses envy and resentment toward those seeming more fortunate
• Frequently makes exaggerated complaints of misfortune
• Shows alternating hostile defiance and contrition
After nearly 40 years it was dropped in 1994. There’s renewed interest in studying passive-aggression. See a 2009 study. Passive-aggression was found to be related to borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, negative childhood experiences, and substance abuse.
Characteristics of Passive-Aggression
Because you can’t have an honest, direct conversation with a passive-aggressive partner, nothing ever gets resolved. They say yes, and then their behavior screams NO. They try to sabotage your wants, needs, and plans using a variety of tactics. We all engage in some of these behaviors some of the time, but when there’s a pervasive pattern of multiple symptoms, it’s likely that you’re dealing with passive-aggression.
Like all codependents, they’re in denial of the impact of their behavior. This is why they blame others, unaware of the problems they’re causing. They refuse to take responsibility for anything, and distort reality, rationalize, blame, make excuses, minimize, deny, or flat out lie about their behavior or the promises or agreements they’ve made.
Rather than say no or address their anger, they forget your birthday or the plans you’ve discussed, or forget to put gas in the car, pick up your prescription, or fix the leaky toilet. You end up feeling hurt and angry.
They’re avoidant and don’t like schedules or deadlines. It’s another form of rebellion, so they delay and delay with endless excuses. They don’t follow through on responsibilities, promises, or agreements. If they’re unemployed, they drag their feet looking for work. You may do more job-searching on their behalf than they do.
This is another nonverbal form of saying NO. When you try to decide on where or when to go on vacation, pick out an apartment, or make plans, they find fault with each suggestion and won’t offer any of their own.
They hate to take a stand. They don’t say what they want or mean. However, their behavior tells the truth, which is usually NO. This way they retain control and blame you for being controlling. As you might expect, negotiating agreements, such as in a divorce or child visitation plan, is exasperating. In addition to procrastinating, they avoid being pinned down. They may insist on “reasonable visitation,” and label your attempts to specify a predictable plan as controlling. Don’t be fooled. This only postpones negotiation when repetitive arguments can occur over every exchange of the children. Alternatively, they might agree to terms, but not abide by them. You can expect to be back in court.