Imagine that you come home from work, and the garbage can is full. Your spouse is milling around the kitchen, slamming drawers and pot lids. As you attempt to wind down from the work day, you can’t help but notice that they’re really making a lot of noise. So, you head into the kitchen to find out what’s going on.
“Honey, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” they say…but the dishes keep rattling.
You’re distinctly aware that something isn’t right, but you can’t put your finger on what, exactly, it is. And if they won’t tell you what’s happening, how are you going to help solve the problem? You suspect they might want you to take out the trash, but it would be nice if they’d just say so.
If this scenario sounds familiar, your spouse might be passive-aggressive. So what does that look like?
Common Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Passive aggression comes in many forms, but it’s important to be able to identify, particularly in your closest relationships. Generally speaking, it’s a way for someone to express resentment without actually addressing and resolving the issue at hand.
Passive-aggressive behavior is always harmful, but it’s especially hurtful when it happens between spouses. If you’re not sure what kinds of behavior constitute passive aggression, here are some examples:
- Your spouse behaves angrily or gives you the silent treatment, but insists they’re fine when you ask what’s wrong.
- He or she undermines you or even sabotages your ability to work, communicate with loved ones, or achieve goals you’re pursuing.
- They brush off your legitimate concerns as misunderstandings, though your intuition tells you something is wrong.
- Your spouse punishes you for issues you understood to be resolved.
- He or she communicates with you in a sarcastic, caustic, or rude manner, then claims that you’re being too sensitive if you ask whether they’re OK.
A spouse who behaves passive-aggressively causes their husband or wife to walk on eggshells all the time. If you find yourself trying to keep your spouse happy to avoid these behaviors, you might be dealing with passive aggression.
Consider Why Your Spouse Might Be Passive-Aggressive
It’s possible there’s a reason behind your spouse’s passive-aggressive behavior…and it likely has nothing to do with you. In some cases, it can be helpful to understand why this behavior is occurring.
- Your spouse could be fearful of speaking up and telling you what they want.
- They may feel powerless, as though they can’t get where they want to be in life or in a specific situation.
- He or she may feel inadequate, or like they’re getting the short end of the stick.
- Your spouse may feel resentful toward you.
- He or she might struggle with low self-esteem and feel as though they’re always at a disadvantage.
Don’t try to rationalize or justify your spouse’s behavior, even after you understand where it might be coming from. Regardless of the reasons, passive aggressive behavior is harmful to both you and your spouse.
If You Confront Your Passive-Aggressive Spouse…
In some cases, there are loving ways to help your spouse raise their self-awareness and begin to address why they may be behaving this way. Addressing the behavior could also give you a chance to find out what’s bothering them, so that maybe you can tackle it together.
If you have the opportunity to gently confront your spouse, then do so. Opening communication about what has been happening could certainly help you both overcome the problem.
Be clear about your boundaries, and what behaviors are and are not acceptable to you. If you are able, talk with your spouse about the behavior patterns you’ve observed. Consider going to therapy with a licensed counselor if you can.
In many cases, though, we can’t stop others from being passive aggressive. If this sounds familiar, you will need to work to accept the situation for what it is. Then, decide on what your boundaries should be in order to navigate these interactions with your spouse in the future.
Take a look at the book, High Maintenance Relationships, as a starting point for navigating challenging relationship dynamics. If you’re creating boundaries to protect yourself from passive-aggressive behavior, then we recommend that you work with a therapist to help you put these in place.
Deep down, we all have the potential to be passive aggressive. Have you and your spouse dealt with passive aggression in your marriage? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments.