Passive-aggressive behaviour in relationships

How to deal with passive-aggressive relationships

Are you the one with passive-aggressive behaviour in your relationship?
Are you the one with passive-aggressive behaviour in your relationship?

My previous post What is passive-aggressive (PA) behaviour covered what it is, and how it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. We learned how it involves behaviours designed to get back at another person without them recognising the underlying anger. We also looked at PA acts in the workplace, and how to change it.

What’s more, we learned that PA is a defence mechanism that allows people to get what they want — under the pretence of still trying to please others. They want their own way, but they still want everyone to like them. They’ll tell you everything’s ‘OK’ but watch carefully, you’ll spot how their actions subtly belie their words.

In this post, we’ll explore more signs of, causes and how to combat passive-aggressive behaviour in relationships. It might just save your sanity!

Causes of passive-aggression

Family dynamics can contribute towards passive-aggressive behaviour in children
Family dynamics can contribute towards passive-aggressive behaviour in children

PA can be a helpful way to deal with certain issues (and to avoid tantrums in front of others). However, long-term, it can cause problems, particularly in your relationships.

“Someone who uses PA may be afraid, or feel resentful, angry, or frustrated, but they act cheerful or pleasant. Then they’ll find indirect ways to show how they really feel.”

While the exact cause of PA remains unknown, both environmental and biological aspects might contribute towards its development.

Healthline wrote “Parenting style, family dynamics, and other childhood influences may be contributing factors. Child abuse, neglect, and harsh punishment can also cause a person to develop passive-aggressive behaviors. Substance abuse and low self-esteem are also thought to lead to this type of behavior.”

Passive-aggressive parenting

Mum and teen arguing - Are family dynamics and parenting styles responsible for passive- aggressive behaviour?
Are parenting styles responsible for passive- aggressive behaviour?

PA behaviour can stem from a child’s experience with anger. If you grew up with rage, yelling and hitting, like me, you’re more likely to grow up afraid of anger.

I watched panic-stricken as my dad regularly beat my mum since I was about knee-high. Later, as a teen, I got the same panic whenever someone raised their voice anywhere near me.

PA can also come from parents who treated anger like it was on the “Naughty list.” You couldn’t be angry and don’t dare try to express it! Sad — Yes. Cheerful — Yes. But, anger, don’t even go there!

So again, you’re afraid of anger because perhaps you haven’t seen it in action or you weren’t allowed to be angry. It wasn’t so much that I was told I couldn’t be angry, but when I tried to tell dad to stop, he just shouted at me to get back to bed.

If we grow up thinking that anger is ‘bad’ or it’s not allowed, we don’t learn how to feel it. Moreover, we don’t know how express it in ways that are healthy or beneficial to our relationships.

Signs of passive-aggressive behaviour in relationships

Are you the passive-aggressive partner?
Are you the passive-aggressive partner?

If you spot PA behaviour in your partner or family member, you might recommend they see their GP or other professional. It’s tough being in a relationship with a partner who acts passive-aggressively, so address it a.s.a.p. Specific signs of PA behaviour might include:

  • Resentful and opposing requests i.e. having to take his suits to the cleaners and pick them up again, twice a week or having to complete his tax returns. You’re getting fed up and resentful having to do these tasks.
  • Procrastinating and intentional mistakes in response to others’ requests i.e. you ‘forget’ to pick his suits up, or you deliberately wrote the wrong date on his tax return.
  • Cynical, sullen or hostile attitude i.e. You eye-roll when he asks why you haven’t picked his suits up, or you put your earplugs in when you know he’s itching to moan at you. Sometimes, you just huff and puff around him but when he asks what’s wrong you say “Nothing!”
  • Frequent complaints about feeling underappreciated or cheated i.e. You tell him, ten times in a row, how fed-up you are, having to run around after him all the time.

Some other signs of PA behaviour include:

  • Not responding to their emails, phone calls or texts.
  • Always missing events with the in-laws or his slimy boss.
  • Avoiding going to bed at the same time.

Common passive-aggressive phrases

I’ve borrowed and adapted the following from Psychology today “10 common passive-aggressive phrases that can serve as an early-warning system for you, helping you recognize hidden hostility when it is being directed your way:

1. “I’m not angry.”

Denying feelings of anger is classic PA behaviour. The passive PA person insists, “I’m not angry” even when he or she is seething on the inside.

2. “Fine. Whatever.”

Sulking and withdrawing from arguments are primary strategies of the PA person. They use phrases like “Fine” and “Whatever” to express anger indirectly and to shut down direct, emotionally honest communication.

3. “I’m coming!”

PA people are known for verbally complying with a request but behaviorally delaying its completion. You ask your partner to clear the kitchen after dinner. He happily responds, “Yep, give me a minute, I’m coming,” but half-hour later, he’s still playing games online!

4. “I didn’t know you meant now,” He laughs.

While all of us like to put off unpleasant tasks from time to time, people with PA personalities rely on procrastination as a way of frustrating others and/or getting out of certain chores without having to directly refuse them.

5. “You just want everything to be perfect.”

When procrastination is not an option, a more sophisticated PA strategy is to carry out tasks in a timely, but unacceptable manner. You cooked his steak well-done when “you damn well know I like it medium-rare!”

6. “I thought you knew.”

PA people express their anger covertly by choosing not to share information when it could prevent a problem. You forgot to tell him his mum’s making lunch on Sunday and he’s booked to play in a golf tournament. You know how he hates letting his mum down, “Oops, sorry, I thought you knew about lunch,” you smile.

7. “You’ve done so well for someone with your education level.”

The backhanded compliment is the ultimate socially acceptable means by which the PA person insults you to your core. When your snotty sister-in-law says, “Don’t worry; your hair will grow back” or, “You’ve put weight on, it suits you.” The chances are you know how much “joy” a PA compliment can bring.

At first, the PA person (ex-sister-in-law) may seem nice and pleasant, and often appear to be really complimentary. It may take a while for you to recognise that her compliment was a cheap jibe, designed to upset you in some way.

8. “I was just kidding.”

Sarcasm is also a common tool of PA people who express hostility aloud, but in socially acceptable, indirect ways. When you show that you’re are offended by biting, the hostile joke teller plays up his role as victim. “Can’t you take a joke?” he’ll grin at you in front of others.

How to combat passive aggressive behaviour

If PA behaviour starts to rear its ugly head during any dispute, try to follow some of these tips:

  • Take a metaphorical step back. Calm down by taking a few deep breaths. There’s no point in continuing if either one or both of you are in a negative frame of mind as the PA will start to creep in. One or both of you will zone out, play around absentmindedly on your phone or do the eye roll, then huff and puff. Take a minute or so to relax and regain your composure.
  • Talk to your partner about whatever issues you have, as soon as they happen, and way before the frustration or resentment sets in. Communicate clearly, concisely and assertively. Take the time to make sure your partner knows what being PA looks like and how it’s affecting you and your relationship.
  • Try to stick to one or two issues at a time; it shouldn’t be total character assassination. Be specific. If you don’t like him cutting his toenails in the living room and letting them flick all over the place, then tell him exactly that. And listen to how your partner feels or thinks, don’t make assumptions. He probably didn’t realise this act grossed you out.
  • Ask your partner how they think the ‘problem’ can be resolved. Tell your partner how you think it can be resolved (Don’t cut your damn toenails in front of me – it makes me feel sick). Flesh out ideas between you. If you’re direct and state the issue, you’ll be able to solve the problem much easier than if you skip around it. Write both your answers down.
  • You might want to scribble down the pros and cons of each of your ideas. Choose the solutions together and see which one will work best so that you both win.
  • Carry out the solutions. If he says he will stop cutting and flicking his toenails in the lounge, then he must. Okay, so you might have to remind him the first hundred few times. But he must stick to it.
  • If your solution was for him to do his nails in the bathroom and he continues to cut them in the lounge, you’ll both have to go to the next solution. No, not the one where he says you could cut his nails for him! Or not the one where you say you’ll take the garden shears to his feet.

So, to wrap up


We’ve covered

  • PA behaviour in relationships
  • Common PA phrases used in relationships
  • the causes of PA
  • PA parenting
  • the signs of and how to combat PA behaviour in relationships

Truth be told—while momentarily satisfying or briefly convenient — in the long run, PA behaviour is even more destructive to relationships than aggression. Over time, virtually all relationships with a person who is PA become confusing, destructive, and dysfunctional. PA behaviour is about power and control.

Break the cycle by stepping away from the PA behaviour, choosing to create a new pattern for you and your family. If you’re the person with the PA behaviour, you might want to get professional help.

Over to you


Do you recognise any of the above signs in yourself or someone close to you? How did you overcome PA behaviours in others? Are you aware of your own PA behaviours and have you had to work on them? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and any questions you might have.


Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

21 thoughts on “Passive-aggressive behaviour in relationships”

    1. It takes practice and skill to say it with just the right inflection. “What-EV-errrr!” Even as an adult, it’s still a favorite of mine! 😀

  1. Everyone displays some passive aggressiveness to avoid what they really feel or what to say, but there’s a line between everyday PA and abusiveness.

    My ex partner used this with me to the extreme, anything from his words to hurt or using actions such as turning the oven down when I was cooking as punishment to avoid telling me that he was mad at me for there being little to no food in the house (when he refused to buy food and avoided shopping in the first place). The aftermath was confusion, lack of self confidence and a lot of damage which I’m still recovering from now.

    1. You’re right Megan, we all use it to some degree and it’s not meant to be malicious. But there are some who use it to hurt and make people suffer.

      I’m sorry to hear that it happened to you too, as it did me. He’d tell me that he’d told me things then tell me I was ‘mad’ for not remembering! Making me question my sanity!

      I don’t think they even wonder what damage it does to us long-term!

  2. I can totally relate to “whatever”. It’s what I said to my good guy friend when I was in meltdown mode recently. Although in retrospect, it was nicer than any full-out aggressive response I would’ve come up with, like, I don’t know… “I hate you! You’re a stupidhead!” So surprisingly, passive-aggression has its uses! 😮

    Your insight about fearing anger was really interesting and explained a lot to me. I think you’re onto something there. That’s deep!! And a lot of people grow up with anger as the parental enemy like you said, “How dare you be angry! Bad kid,” etc., etc. That’s deep!!

    Growing up, my mom forever accused my dad of passive-aggression. “You bought me lime marmalade instead of the orange flavor I requested!” (There was a similar row over wheat sandwich buns instead of white.) “You did it passive-aggressively to avoid having to run errands for me! Admit it.” And the screaming match would ensue.

    Here’s the interesting thing: I live with my dad, and I know him inside-out. He’s not passive-aggressive. He’s just not detail oriented. Whenever I send him to the store to get me something, like if I’m sick and need sherbet, or whatever, I have to be very, very specific and ideally show him an empty package of what I want. He tries his hardest but often misses the mark, and I’m not wont to blow up over it because I know he did his best. It’s just weird that my mom was wrong about him being passive-aggressive. [Shaking my head.]

    Like recently he got a can of kitty food for Mr. Kitty, and he was nice enough to pick up a bone for LuLu the pup. I had to break the news to him that the bone is the dangerous kind (an actual bone with meat added onto it rather than a rawhide bone) that can majorly upset a dog’s stomach. But he meant well and was so proud to have been so thoughtful, so I was really sensitive about it, and I muttered, “They shouldn’t be allowed to sell these.”

    But that’s a rare case. I’m guessing that most people who are called passive-aggressive really are passive-aggressive. Very interesting blog post!!

    1. Of course, it has its uses — short-term Meg. And most of us display passive-aggression at times but it’s not meant to be malicious. Yes, that thing about being afraid of anger only hit me when I went to therapy the first time and it was that “aha!” moment where lots of things made sense to me. I still don’t like hearing or seeing anger around me, it sends me way back to being that little kid again.

      Aawww, bless him. Your dad certainly doesn’t sound like he was passive-aggressive and to be honest, many men aren’t – I just got more than my fair share I suppose.

      Fortunately for me, hubby’s not like that. He was prone to the odd sulk in the beginning but I soon stopped it lol. It doesn’t solve anything really. Thank you for your comments and input, as always Meg, and I’m glad you found the post interesting.

  3. I am an example of this 🙂 I can relate to the fear of being yelled at, coming from an abusive home growing up. I run from confrontation and am a classic people pleaser. However, that being said… I have been working very hard on being less so. It takes a lot of mental power and some days exhausts me more than anything. I find it depends a lot on who I surround myself with.

  4. I feel for you Angie, how growing up in an abusive environment leaves us with so many problems. I’m glad you’ve been able to start working on yourself in order to overcome the damage, despite how very hard it must feel for you. It is absolutely exhausting but long-term, it gets easier and it’s so worth it! Keep doing what you’re doing Angie and continue to surround yourself with like-minded, loving and supportive people – that’s key! xx

  5. Constant unrelentless shit. Feel so strongly that we all have to retrieve our personalities and be strong again to finally enjoy life. Strength my friends, find your strength x

  6. Great post, Caz. The steps to deal with a PA situation make perfect sense. One of our sons is like Meg’s father – as long as you detail what’s required he is fine, otherwise don’t expect a response or call to action. I ofter wonder if our cats are PA 😂

  7. Ow, that #7 line is really hitting low! 😖 I’ve definitely heard a few of these lines, though I’m relieved to say I haven’t had many come from my lips in a good long while.

    By the way, I love the toenail flinging example in your steps to work out of a PA relationship situation. It makes it feel so real and grounded! 😂

    1. Lol, it’s been said tho’:( Glad to hear you’ve not been PA in a long time 🙂 Yes, the toenail thing was a real situation. And doing it was his way of being PA to get at me, knowing I don’t like it lol.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Verified by MonsterInsights