5 Ways to Cope with a Passive-Aggressive Spouse

Passive aggression is a common behavior pattern that arises in all kinds of relationships. It’s always harmful, but in marriages, it’s especially painful.

Passive-aggressive behavior can be a simple as a dishonest, “I’m fine,” followed by a period of pouting and unpleasant behavior (slamming cabinets and drawers, angrily manhandling items around the house, giving you the silent treatment, etc.). Or it can go as deep as deliberate sabotage between spouses.

Luckily, these harmful patterns can be overcome with observation, self-examination, and the willingness to get help. And if you think your spouse might be passive-aggressive, there are ways to cope while you observe his or her behaviors. Let’s dive in.

1. Learn to identify your spouse’s passive-aggressive behaviors.

Every passive-aggressive person operates a little differently, but there’s one rule they all adhere to: they are not overt. They behave and appear to be outwardly supportive or content, but they consistently harm you or your relationship in ways that aren’t always easy to pinpoint. And deep inside, they might actually resent you.

In many cases, passive aggression goes much deeper than the common “I’m fine” scenario. If you think your spouse might have passive-aggressive tendencies, it could be helpful to ask yourself:

  • Whether your spouse appears to be undermining or sabotaging things that are important to you on a regular basis
  • If your spouse tends to brush off their hurtful comments or actions as simple “misunderstandings,” but you continue to feel uneasy
  • Whether your spouse tends to “punish” you later for conflicts you thought you’d resolved together
  • If you feel angry or unsettled around him or her often, but don’t really know why
  • Whether you feel like you’re always walking on eggshells or dodging landmines with this person

It can be really difficult to identify passive aggression at first until you’ve learned your spouse’s patterns, and it’s normal to second-guess your own instincts. But while it’s easy to convince yourself that your spouse doesn’t have hard feelings toward you, their behavioral patterns will tell you otherwise.

2. Understand where passive-aggression comes from.

While there’s no excuse for any kind of aggressive behavior, it’s helpful to understand why your spouse is repeating these patterns. On a low level, passive aggression could be the result of your spouse’s fear to speak up and tell you what they want. Instead, they find underhanded ways of getting it, even if that means it could be hurtful to you in the process.

We commonly observe the following underlying issues in the couples we encounter who deal with passive-aggressive patterns:

  • Low self-esteem: The passive-aggressive person might feel like they’re at a perpetual, innate disadvantage. Your spouse might display a victim mentality and operate out of a deep sense of insecurity…which helps them justify their devious methods of getting what they want. You might even notice that your spouse knocks you down in order to elevate themselves.
  • Sense of powerlessness: This goes hand-in-hand with the victim mentality. If your spouse feels out of control of a situation (or many situations), that feeling may fuel underhanded tactics or jealousy toward you–particularly if you’re enjoying success in an area they aren’t.
  • Buried feelings of inadequacy and injustice: People who act out passive-aggressively tend to feel, deep down, that they’re getting the short end of the stick. If your spouse feels like you have some kind of unfair advantage over them when it comes to your career, your relationships, or anything else they want and don’t have, watch out. They might hold deep feelings of resentment toward you, but they’ll never admit it. Basically, this is an ongoing, adult-size, “it’s-not-fair” tantrum.

3. Accept the situation for what it is.

Woodrow Wilson once said, “Loyalty means nothing unless it has at its heart the absolute principle of self-sacrifice.” We believe this also applies to marriages. If you’ve determined that your spouse is acting out in passive-aggressive ways, you will have also realized that your spouse’s actions are not self-sacrificing. Rather, they sacrifice parts of you on a regular basis: your peace, your progress, and your success.

It’s painful to accept that your spouse is operating within a passive-aggressive pattern. After all, they act loyal, accommodating, and sacrificial. They say they love you, and might even brag about you to their friends and co-workers. But if you’ve noticed that your spouse then finds subtle ways to sabotage and undermine you, it’s time to trust your instincts and accept the reality of the situation.

The first thing to do as you accept this reality is to remind yourself that deep down, we all have the potential for acting in passive-aggressive ways. While this doesn’t excuse your spouse, it does help cultivate empathy.

Second, let go of how you think things “should” be. While ideally, marriage is meant to be a partnership and a safe haven for two people who love each other, there are situations and difficulties that require a different perspective.

4. Don’t make excuses for your spouse or justify their behavior.

Part of accepting the situation for what it is involves not making excuses for your spouse’s behavior, to yourself or anyone else. Maybe no one else sees the passive aggression; in that case, train yourself to stop inwardly justifying it. If someone else observes the behavior and points it out to you, don’t try to explain it away.

People who behave passive-aggressively hate being “found out” more than almost anything else. If you have the opportunity to let your spouse know that you know what they’re doing, do it carefully. Stand up for yourself or anyone else affected by their behaviors. Being clear about what behaviors you will not accept may open the floor for some discussions about the patterns you’ve been experiencing (and it never hurts to seek out a good marriage therapist).

5. Set healthy boundaries.

It hurts deeply to accept that your spouse has passive-aggressive tendencies and might not always have your best interests at heart. Once you’ve come to terms with the dynamic in your relationship right now, start taking steps to set boundaries that protect yourself from further passive-aggressive behaviors.

Depending on the extent of the issue, you may have to start being selective about what you share with your spouse. Deep thoughts, feelings, and aspirations might not be safe to express. You know your spouse best, so use your judgment going forward. You may find that only certain topics need to be off-limits, rather than a broad change to your communication.

We know this is difficult to read, but now that you know you’re dealing with passive aggression in your marriage, it’s critical to protect yourself. Guard your boundaries and do whatever you can to get help–for both of you.

It will also be important to approach your spouse with vulnerability and empathy. You may not be able to get them to admit to their passive aggression, but you might be able to start a conversation that eventually leads to a discussion of feelings of inadequacy or loss of control. In this way, you might find opportunities to speak truth to your spouse’s abilities and talents, breathing life into those areas where they feel less-than.

With the right approach and professional support, you can overcome passive-aggressive patterns and build a happier, healthier marriage together.

Have you experienced passive-aggression in your marriage? How did you deal with it? Did you and your spouse seek therapy? We’d love to see your stories in the comments.

If you’d like further information, Les’s book, High Maintenance Relationships, takes a deep dive into how to cope with difficult relationships of all kinds.

19 Comments

  • Amy Koehn says:

    Great help!!!! Passive aggressive behaviot is truly difficult to deal with and very hurtfil! It can split up a marriage if not resolved in some way.

  • Laura Layton says:

    The first time I looked my husband in the eye & asked nonchalantly, “how long are you planning to give me the silent treatment” -instead of tip toeing around him- he was flummoxed… Since then, I’ve learned to entrust him to Jesus which allows me to keep my peace & feel sad for him instead of being hurt… Reacting in peace & love (which, by the way, speaks truth & does not delight in evil) instead of fear has removed the power from many of his passive aggressive behaviors (& he uses them much less!)… Deep down, we’re all still little kids trying to get our needs met from others instead of from Christ – the only One who really can!

  • Bill says:

    I heard no mention of passive-aggressive behavior as a way of coping with a controlling spouse on the other side. How about a blog on controlling spouses?

    • Ted says:

      Here here! A controlling spouse can steamroll right over even a slightly passive aggressive spouse and feel absolutely justified in doing so. The controlling spouse will actually draw out and inadvertently encourage the passive aggressive behaviour. In that case, both are in need of help.

    • Glenda says:

      Did you stop and think that possibly their behavior is a reaction to how you are treating them. Instead of pointing fingers, the best place to start is by looking in the mirror. The only person that you can change is yourself. Blaming the other person for your choices may make you feel better but solves nothing.

      • can't say says:

        Obviously, Glenda, you have not lived with an aggressive person who ignores the kids half the time and hits the ceiling and pulls their hair over spilt milk other times. Then says he’s So sorry but we know it will happen again in a few days. We walked on eggshells because we never knew what would
        set him off. He went to counseling so he doesn’t hit any more, just yells and uses sarcasm almost every day. My kids are adults now but both are so dysfunctional and hurt.

        • Irene says:

          They are dysfunctional as adults because they did not feel fully loved by either parent.

          One loving parent is enough to overcome the abuse of the other, but the sane parent has to be Mature and Responsible enough to make a smart, and permanent choice/change. It takes a heroe/heroine to save the children from a monster.
          Havings stayed in a hurtful relationship was the easiest thing to do but it was by All means the Most cowardly way of “protecting” your little ones -they trusted you, they looked up to you for guidance and protection.
          You taught them to be targets, to be cowards.
          You can make it better by Talking to them about it.
          Let them know that you now understand that staying was a huge mistake and apologize for that mistake. Tell them that you love them very much and would give anything to change that. Ask for their forgiveness and hug them until you all cry and squish out all that resentment .
          If you never do it cause you think it is better to just pretending it doesn’t hurt anymore, or because you were a victim as well, believe me, one day it’s going to be too late for either one of you; the pain may take over in a form of a substance abuse, or a worse outcome.

      • Maria says:

        This is a very valid point. It takes two…I can see that situations have to start somewhere and that it could be the passive aggressive spouse on the starting line but it can also be this be a reaction to treatment he or she is receiving by the other spouse.

    • Angie says:

      Bill I hear you, I understand, please note my hubby controlled me until I loss who I was so in love I started standing up to him. We do not have to coward under a controlling spouse. But rather teach that I am (You are ) a person with individual thoughts and characteristic. Again in love help that person to grow up in that area whatever you allow God allows. My hubby and I have grown more since I started doing this. He is still challenge with passive aggressive behavior but he is striving to change. I am striving to change too. Two people healthy in marriage make a healthy marriage. Someone has to strive at getting healthy we cannot blame any person for our choices that our negative. We can and should learn from the Savior how to become more Christ like he is able

  • Barbara Cowal says:

    Passive aggression is extremely painful, undermining, and destructive. But so is criticism, control and other self-protective mechanisms – it’s just much harder to address because it is subtle, slippery, and the PA person must always win without ever revealing they even wanted to. It is crazy-making at its finest. You must become realistic (try reading “Living with the Passive Aggressive Man” – it led to the worst year of my life as I began to recognize the insidious PA behaviours that wreaked havoc with our marriage and my heart); then you must recognize your own crap and learn to work on it; then you must set boundaries to protect your sanity and begin to live in freedom. Few counselors seem able to recognize the dark side of Mr Nice Guy. It is however possible that God will work in their life to reveal the original wounds that led to such self-protective behaviours – once these begin to heal, the need for protection is reduced, and the beautiful person God created them to be can begin to shine. It’s a long painful process requiring great faith, love, perseverance and dying to one’s own selfishness. But keep in prayer and close to God and He may make a way. We have no control over another person, so the outcome is never a guarantee. But certainly, your dependence on God will grow. Life is not easy for anyone. But a plea to wives: you cannot “fix” him. Learn what is right and try to act accordingly, and let him come to his own conclusions. We are all imperfect and flawed and in need of grace. And men in particular are in need of honour (he wants to be a hero in your eyes so be blind to his faults and communicate, often without words, that he is capable).
    Sorry I’ve written this entirely from a female perspective.

    • LA says:

      I very much appreciate all that you wrote and agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for writing it. If I had understood these principles years ago it might have made a big difference.

  • Andy Smith says:

    This was very helpful, my wife has an autoimmune disease that has left her on oxygen and needing physical support from me. She has become very angry that I go to work everyday. She has chosen to take her anger out on me and our children (started when they were in middle school). She is envious of our daughter and her career, and the relationship that I have with our children (she has damaged hers). It seems like she is trying to hurt me and or destroy my credibility anyway she can. I had made the decision when she started hurting our children to tell them that this was not OK and that they should protect themselves emotionally from here (they did). They know that I am committed to her and will remain loyal to her to no matter what comes. (they support this).

    This was very helpful as it is difficult to keep going sometimes knowing that you have to make decisions without the aid of someone you have counted on and needed for so many years. At this point without the intervention from the Lord and her truly falling at the foot of the cross this seems to be the best I can do.

  • SLM says:

    What to do when your NPD spouse is passive-aggressive but accuses you of being passive-aggressive? NPD’rs blame you for the very things that they are doing. It’s so unbelievable, hurtful, and feels hopeless.

    • Colleen says:

      It’s an impossible situation! The NPD spouse will always create the narrative that clears them of any responsibility in the situation. You’ll always be the “crazy one” and the one with all the issues. It’s their victimhood mentality that allows them to believe this.

  • Alan says:

    All kinds of labeling going on here. My ex wife told me on nunerius occasions that I was passive aggressive but could never help me understand what that means or how to change. Ironic that I read this entire blog and all the replies, still searching for what this label means and how to change it, if I’m really doing it. I saw neither definitions nor solutions.

    I’m not at all sure about myself, whether I really do this or not. But i relate to the guy who mentioned the controlling spouse. I’m not ruling out possibly being PA but most of this seems like a psychobabble smokescreen being used to avoid responsibility and deflect deserved blame.

    • Caitlin says:

      Alan, you may not ever read this because it’s been a few weeks, but for what it’s worth, maybe a bit of my story will help clarify. I have been with my husband for 16 years. I am an enabler and therefor a controlling person. I attempt to control the lives of my husband and my children. They have all expressed to me that when I’m at my worst, I can be quite demeaning and bossy. I set ridiculously high expectations sometimes and then become very angry when my husband disappoints me, which he does on practically a daily basis. I have started attending Al-Anon meetings again because I know that I learned this behavior from my alcoholic father and 1st husband. I tend to communicate very directly, sometimes bluntly, and husband finds this frightening. He wasn’t raised that way and he interprets directness as aggressive blaming and shuts down completely.
      My husband is a passive aggressive. He makes it a point to be a “nice guy” but he simply will not make any effort to be proactive, ever. He is not terribly interested in my feelings and rarely shares his own. He is prone to self-pity and often (daily) expresses it by moping, pouting, sighing and saying things like “well, I guess everything is always my fault” or “FINE, I guess you’re just always right and I’m just an idiot”. He does not feel safe expressing his feelings to me or even acknowledging them to himself. A perfect day for my husband is this (he has admitted this): He gets ready for work, goes to work, comes home, asks how my day was and kisses my cheek, goes to his computer and reads emails and plays solitaire until dinner, comes to the table and eats,(speaking at an absolute minimum) then watches one of his tv shows without interruption, goes to bed. He’s quite put out if he’s asked to do anything at all housework-wise. He would like sex about once every 10 days (he’s 68, so that’s dwindling down a bit), and then goes to sleep. No variation in routine. And I HAVE to invite the sex, always. I tested this once and waited for him to initiate it and we didn’t have sex for 3 months. The only chore he does without prompting is taking the garbage to the curb once a week, and occasionally looking after our grandson for a half hour or so while I cook his dinner. If he is asked to do something he doesn’t want to do, he will “forget” or he’ll intentionally do it incorrectly or pretend he doesn’t know how. If he perceives any type of criticism, he stops speaking to me completely, or behaves in an overly, almost sarcastically polite way, or sometimes has a big tantrum, throwing things around, slamming doors, etc. He lies frequently, often about very inconsequential things, and will disappear for many hours on the weekends, sometimes without telling me he’s leaving, and then come back with say, three items from the grocery store and insist that’s where he was the whole time. So basically he’s lying to be sure that I will know he’s lying.
      He quite literally never asks how I’m feeling, even if I’m crying. He will just leave the room to “give me space”. He lies about money incessantly. If he were another type of person, I’d think he was having an affair, but actually, I’m fairly sure he’s not. I think if he was having an affair it would be the most interesting thing he’s done in years. He has worked in the same crappy job for a man he loathes for 25 years and complains about it every day, but refuses to consider working elsewhere. He complains about be ill every day, but refuses to seek medical attention. I believe that he truly enjoys experiencing and expressing misery and hopelessness. He feels very threatened by any job i have, any hobbies that take me outside the house, or any friends. He complains that I don’t talk to him, but when i do, it’s completely one-sided, with me talking and him going off to his happy place, and saying ‘hmm” and “right” at the appropriate times. He rarely actually responds with a full sentence. I would die of loneliness if it weren’t for my kids. He has never had one friend since I’ve known him, and sees his brothers about twice a year even though they live within 45 minutes of us. He has phases where he says “I love you” about 20 times a day and follows me around the house staring at me, but not saying anything, which is profoundly irritating. Conversely, he has spent weeks at a time not speaking to me at all or even making eye contact.
      For my part, I am trying to make suggestions, rather than criticize. I’m trying to be less controlling. I’m also trying to live my own life, and not having the things he does affect me. I feel sorry for him, because it must be horrible to be so fearful of emotions, of ever making a decision, that you’ve become completely helpless. Or feel like you have to act helpless to get love or attention.
      Our relationship was founded on co-dependence. Yes, it’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re passive aggressive, then your wife is an enabler and controlling. She wouldn’t be with you if she wasn’t. I have begged, pleaded, been reasonable, been threatening, just about everything to get him to change. Now, I have accepted that this is never going to happen. I can only change myself and am in the process of doing so. I think there’s a good chance that as I become more independent and less willing to play these destructive games with him and stop doing everything for him, he won’t like it. If he can’t adapt to my becoming a healthier person, he’s welcome to leave and I wouldn’t be particularly sad about it. I loved him very much once but I find myself feeling that love only rarely now. Love needs to be reciprocated to keep growing. I care about him and have compassion for him but that’s about it. He is not responsible for my happiness and I am not responsible for his. Yes, he and I are BOTH guilty of focusing the blame for our problems on each other and then refusing to change our own behaviors. This post was longer than I intended but I hope it helped a little.

  • Shikha Gupta says:

    Hi friends,

    I am from India. After 12 years of relationship I could realize and identify that my husband is a passive aggressive person and it was very painful experience in the past. At I feel myself as emotionally abuse totally.

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