Correcting Your Passive-Aggressive Behaviors In A Relationship Doesn't Have To Be A Chore

Nobody steps into a relationship expecting it to fall apart, but many relationships are just doomed to fail. Not all splits have obvious reasons. Sometimes, even the insiders can't put a finger on their dysfunctional relationship dynamics. It may start with a minor disagreement, and slowly it balloons into recurring unaddressed grievances. One upsetting instance happens after another until you lose track of the root of the cracks. You don't know exactly who's to blame, so you struggle to find a solution. Worse: as you move onto the next relationship, you see the same toxic patterns coming up to haunt you again. This situation is symptomatic of a common coping mechanism — passive-aggressive behavior.

According to Mayo Clinic, passive-aggressive behavior is characterized by a pattern of conveying negative emotions indirectly rather than directly. A person who engages in passive-aggressive behavior doesn't show their anger in a direct way. Rather, they sulk, procrastinate your instructions, give you the cold shoulder, or act in ways that upset you while apparently complying with your requests. "Passive-aggressive people act passive but are covertly aggressive," marriage and family therapist Darlene Lancer tells Brides. Passive-aggressive behaviors can make a relationship toxic for both parties and should be nipped in the bud. While you might be quick to spot passive-aggressive behavior in someone else, it might be more challenging to spot them in yourself. Here's how to spot underlying tendencies to exhibit passive-aggressive behaviors in a relationship, outgrow them, and enjoy a more healthy relationship.

You expect your partner to read your mind

If you always expect your partner to be aware of and responsive to your unspoken feelings and needs, you're acting passive-aggressively, psychotherapist Tania DeBarros tells Well+Good. For instance, you express your innermost feelings to your partner out of emotional vulnerability, expecting your partner to feel your pain and give you a comforting embrace. But what your partner does instead is, without a hint of empathy, explain to you why your problem is just a storm in a teacup and why you should stop crying over spilled milk. As a result, you feel misunderstood, get upset, and withdraw. Your partner doesn't understand why you react so negatively to their way of helping and also gets offended. You reason that if your partner truly loves you, they should understand you and know how to comfort you without you having to ask them to. 

To resolve this common problem that usually devolves into a greater conflict, psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps (via WebMD) suggests telling your partner what you want and helping them better understand you instead of keeping your feelings bottled up inside. Love is not so much about reading each other's mind than attending to each other's needs in a way that naturally nourishes love between you. Through honest communication, you'll realize that they have your best interests at heart, even when their way of caring doesn't match your expectation.

You enjoy giving the silent treatment

Habitually giving the silent treatment when you're not happy is a major red flag of passive-aggressive behavior — a form of emotional abuse, per PsychCentral. This is a case where the abuser punishes the intended victim through nonverbal communication as a way to avoid taking responsibility for their rudeness. Outsiders might not recognize it, but insiders know what's happening. A person is considered to give someone the silent treatment when they refuse to pick up phone calls, ignore texts, avoid eye contact, and decline to engage any further. This deafening silence can create a climate of anxiety and fear that escalates the conflict and vexes the victim to the point of wanting to retaliate.

Before you give someone a silent treatment, remind yourself that it will only widen the distance and bring your relationship to a dead end. It doesn't make you feel any better, and it hurts your partner more than you can comprehend. "Few events in life are more painful than feeling that others, especially those whom we admire and care about, want nothing to do with us. There may be no better way to communicate this impression than for others to treat you as though you are invisible – like you didn't exist," writes psychology professor Kipling Williams in his book "Ostracism: The Power of Silence." As an adult, you should learn to agree to disagree and make your point without abusing people. 

You exhibit insecure attachment

According to NewPoint of View Counseling, insecure attachment — characterized by a fearful and distrustful approach to a relationship — can ultimately result in passive-aggressive behavior. A person's insecure attachment tendency usually falls under one of three forms: avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized attachment style. Adults with insecure attachment issues usually suffer from insecurity during childhood, which causes them to grow up feeling that they don't deserve a truly intimate, secure relationship. Lack of trust, a propensity for clingy behavior, reluctance to ask for help, feelings of anxiety, fear of rejection, and poor emotional control are the hallmarks of the insecure attachment style. A study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence points out that people with insecure attachment styles usually struggle to connect on an emotional level with others, and, for fear of abandonment or loneliness, they can display erratic behaviors around the people they're in a relationship with.

To overcome insecure attachment, it's helpful to communicate with your partner about your problems so you both are aware of the patterns and able to come up with a long-term solution to cope with them, holistic psychologist Nicole Lippman-Barile tells mindbodygreen. You should also consider seeking help from a therapist or a psychologist. A trained professional in the field of psychology can help you pinpoint the underlying factors behind your behaviors, pick up coping skills, cultivate optimism, and learn how to form secure attachments.

You avoid confrontation at all costs

Suppressing your negative emotions for the sake of avoiding confrontations can lead to passive-aggressive behavior down the road, author Imi Lo shares in Psychology Today. We all feel angry feelings every once in a while, so going into self-denial and suppressing them will force us to seek out another outlet to unleash them passively. For instance, instead of flipping the lid, you put on a hostile facade, pass put-down or cynical comments, and clap back at people without them recognizing the hidden anger. If you think this makes you come across as mature, hold onto your hats — it drives people away and it doesn't make you feel any better.

There are healthier ways to express your anger. According to Mental Health America, a good way to release your anger is to engage in high-intensity exercise, such as boxing or sprinting, or dancing. If you need a quick release of inner tension, go to your room and let out a scream or just sing it out loud. Slowing down your breathing and focusing on your breath can also help you calm down. In the long run, however, it's better to learn to identify your triggers, see things from other people's perspectives, and communicate calmly. If you're not the kind of person who can overlook an offense, getting irritations off your chest can prevent resentment from festering and damaging your relationship.

You don't say what you mean

Saying things you don't mean and not meaning what you say is one of the telltale signs of passive aggression, psychotherapist Anita Astley tells Well+Good. For instance, when your partner senses that you're upset and asks you what's vexing you, you let out a loud sigh and reply with "I'm fine" — when your vibes say otherwise. Or, when your partner asks if you're angry with them, you say "No I'm not angry at you" but continue acting cold and distant. Your remarks are always laced with sly innuendos and sarcasm, which force your interlocutor to read between the lines. Maybe you're sending conflicting messages to avoid a confrontation or that's your go-to method for self-calming or you're doing it unintentionally. But either way — that makes you come across as immature and mean.

John Bowe, a speech and communications specialist, shares with CNBC that individuals with these inclinations struggle with being open and honest about their emotions. However, when you keep sending mixed messages, you cause people to make negative assumptions, let unresolved tension run high, and even lose people's respect. Therefore, if you're stressed or upset, be honest with yourself and acknowledge your emotions. Then, set aside a good time when your partner is relaxed and address your issues one by one. If you want a positive and compassionate reaction, try to keep the conversation as lighthearted and constructive as possible.

You're resistant to cooperation

Resistance to cooperation in response to other people's requests or instructions is a sure sign of passive-aggressive behavior. For instance, you agreed to a project but procrastinated on completing it because you didn't think it was worthwhile. Or, someone asked you to do something, which you did — bonus some intentional mistakes and excuses. We all enjoy putting off uninteresting tasks from time to time, but according to therapist Signe Whitson in Psychology Today, those with passive-aggressive tendencies use procrastination as a means to irritate others or avoid doing something they don't like without having to express their displeasure out loud and offend others.

When you agree to one thing in the beginning but end up doing something that's completely different makes it difficult for people to know where you stand and trust you to act on your promises. The first step to correcting a vice is to acknowledge it — not justify it, according to Harvard Business Review. Once you identify your triggers and comprehend the underlying causes of your behavior, you must be honest with yourself. Ask yourself what you truly want and what kind of outcome you expect from your tendencies to procrastinate. Most importantly, realize that disagreements are inevitable and that your relationship is not jeopardized simply because you don't see eye-to-eye on minor issues. It pays to be honest. If you don't want to do something, politely let people know you don't want to do it instead of merely talking the talk.