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.