Recognizing Four Passive-Aggressive Behaviors in Your Marriage and Tips to Overcome Them

Do you ever feel as though your partner ignores or brushes off your seemingly simple requests to perform routine household chores such as emptying the dishwasher or picking up some groceries from the local market? Do you feel like he/she “shuts down” conversations using words like “Whatever” or “Fine then”? Is there an emotional undertone of anger or hostility to most of the conversations you have with your partner? Do you feel like your partner is purposefully completing the requested task incorrectly, just to spite you? If you have answered “Yes” to any of these questions, your marriage may be suffering from passive-aggressive tendencies.

Behaving in a passive-aggressive manner is very common. In fact, we have all done it at one point or another. When we are irritated with a friend, parent, or spouse, we sometimes convey this anger through the tone in our voice or the subtle behaviors we carry out to “get back at” the person who made us feel this way in the first place. We do this so that the other person “gets the message”, but does so without a full-blown fight or argument. However, passive-aggressive behavior is not healthy for any relationship, especially a marriage relationship.

Over the years, I have helped many married couples in the San Diego area through the process ofmarriage counseling and couples counseling. Together through this process, we have identified many passive-aggressive behaviors and patterns that occur frequently in marriages. Since the nature of these behaviors are so common, I have compiled a list of the four most common passive-aggressive indicators for you to be on the look-out for – for both yourself and your partner. Consider these behaviors as warning signs. Passive-aggression is unhealthy and can spiral out of control into a full-fledged argument, so you want to make sure that you and your partner are communicating with each other as positively as possible and that you keep the passive-aggression to a minimum. After I describe the passive-aggressive behaviors, I will offer you some tips for combating these behaviors so that they do not become the central mode of communication in your marriage.

Passive-Aggressive Behaviour #1: Denial – No one likes to fight or argue, that is why most people deny their true feelings of anger in fear that the situation will get worse if others become aware of his/her anger.These people mask their feelings using a common defense mechanism: Denial. You may recognize this defense mechanism, or have perhaps utilized it yourself. Saying things like “I’m not mad” and behaving happy and smiling when questioned about your emotions is a very common form of passive-aggressive behavior exhibiting denial. Instead of using this opportunity to express your true feelings of anger, you avoid the question entirely by behaving in the complete opposite manner of how you truly feel.



Passive-Aggressive Behavior #2: Withdrawal – Rather than discussing what is bothering them, a person using this passive-aggressive behavior will likely withdraw from the argument, brushing it off with phrases such as “Fine then” or “Whatever”.

This is unhealthy for two reasons: 1) It halts all communication entirely, since not much else can be said after a person exhibits the desire to withdraw from a conversation and 2) It represses the person’s true emotions of anger and hostility, meaning that the individual is still feeling these feelings, but is not expressing them to his/her partner. As you know from my previous blogs, positive communication is the key to any healthy relationship, therefore withdrawal is a poisonous behavior in any relationship and should be considered a “red flag” that your marriage is suffering from poor communication.



Passive-Aggressive Behavior #3: Procrastination – No one enjoys doing household chores, but we all know that they must be accomplished to maintain order within a household. A person behaving passive-aggressively and employing the procrastination behavior will verbally agree to complete these mundane tasks, but may stall their completion. By complying verbally, the passive-aggressive person avoids disagreement in the short-term, but also causes anger and upset by postponing the completion of these chores behaviorally.


Passive-Aggressive Behavior #4: Acting Confused – This is pretty much the exact opposite of procrastination (behavior #3). A passive-aggressive person may not postpone the completion of a mundane task, but instead, he/she will complete the task quickly, but in a way that is unacceptable or not up to par. This person may purposefully complete the required task in the wrong way, which of course achieves the goal of irritating the person who prompted the completion of the chore in the first place. In this way, the person exhibiting the passive-aggressive tendencies is technically “complying” with the request by completing it, but is achieving his/her goal of angering the other person by completing the task incorrectly. When questioned or confronted about his/her behavior, a passive-aggressive person using this behavioral strategy may act shocked, or say things like “I didn’t know what you meant”.

As you can see, passive-aggressive behaviors are quite common in marriages and can be detrimental to a healthy relationship. Now that you’ve read about the warning signs and some of the passive-aggressive behaviors to look for both within yourself and within your partner, I will offer you some tips to practice in between marriage counseling sessions.

Tip #1: Be More Self-Aware – In order to respond effectively to your partner’s passive-aggressive behaviors, you have to recognize the feelings of anger and hostility their behavior is arousing within yourself. Take responsibility for yourself and own your feelings. Understand that if you have to ask your partner to perform a seemingly simple task more than twice, he/she is likely behaving passive-aggressively. Instead of engaging in the behavior yourself and responding to your partner by yelling and screaming (what he/she wants), try to remain calm and discuss your feelings with your partner. You could say something like “I feel like you are not listening to me, as I have asked you to do ________ two times already. I don’t want to fight about it, but can we talk about why you haven’t done it yet?” Perhaps he/she has a good reason. Perhaps he/she does not. Either way, you are avoiding an argument (hopefully) and giving your partner an opportunity to discuss his/her feelings with you in a calm and collected manner.

Tip #2: Be Clear With Your Requests – Sometimes things seem very obvious and clear to us in our own heads, but in the head of the recipient, these messages may not be so clear. For example, if you ask your partner to run to the market to pick up some last minute groceries because you have a dinner party to prepare for tomorrow, be sure to state this specifically in your request. Simply asking your partner to do you the favour by going to the store is sometimes enough, but you have to keep in mind that your partner cannot read your mind. Perhaps he/she has forgotten that you have a dinner party tomorrow. Maybe he/she has a lot going on and it has slipped their mind. Whatever the reason is, if you are very clear and specific in your requests, this lessens the chances of miscommunication and misunderstanding, which inevitably lead to conflict. For example, instead of requesting you partner to just go to the store for you to get a few items, you could say something like: “I have that big dinner party tomorrow and it would be very helpful to me if you would run up to the store and get me some lettuce and tomatoes for the salad I’m going to make.” This request was very specific in nature, and also served as a reminder to the recipient of the reason why the groceries were needed so urgently. Make sure the tone of voice you are using is neutral, yet assertive, but be careful not to sound bossy or condescending.

Overall, passive-aggressive behaviors, while effective at achieving their purpose in the short-term, can cause a marriage or relationship to quickly diminish if they become the dominant behaviors in your relationship. Passive-aggressive behavior usually means that you are suppressing feelings of anger and hostility. Therefore, it is always better to address these feelings and figure out why you are having them as opposed to continue down the destructive path of passive-aggression in your relationship. Remember, positive communication is the key to a healthy relationship. If you are not communicating effectively, your relationship will noticeably suffer. While passive-aggressive behaviors do convey emotion and communicate feelings, they do so in an indirect, covert manner which is unhealthy and destructive to a marriage or partnership.

If you think that your marriage could benefit from marriage counseling, please give me a call at 858-481-0425 for a consultation today so that I can help you and your spouse get back on the road to a happy, healthy relationship!

Copyright ©2012 Jan Rakoff. All Rights Reserved.