|How to Stop Passive Aggression from Ruining Your Relationship
||Every Saturday night, Bill and Sarah leave their son with a babysitter and go out to dinner. Sarah hopes that by dressing up for date night, it’ll keep a spark in their marriage. One night, Sarah puts on a new, little red dress. It’s more daring than what she usually wears, so she’s nervous to show him.
When he sees it on her, he smiles and gives a little, surprised shake of his head. “You look…different,” he says. Sarah feels crushed, but she doesn’t say anything. Instead, she feels self-conscious all night and swears to herself that she’ll never wear it again.
That night, when they’re in bed together, and Bill leans in to kiss her, she gives him a quick peck on the cheek, rolls over, and pretends to fall asleep. For the rest of the week, Sarah thinks about the red dress and Bill’s comment. She pretends her stomach hurts when Bill wants to make love.
By Saturday, Sarah is fuming mad but holds her feelings in, just so she doesn’t have to ask, “What did you mean by ‘You look different’?” and say, “That hurt my feelings.” What she doesn’t know is that if she did so, it would make her feel better. Bill would tell her the truth: He’d never seen her in something like that before, so she caught him off guard. But he liked the way she looked in it.
Sarah’s behavior toward Bill is a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior. Passive aggression is the indirect expression of anger by someone who is uncomfortable or unable to express his or her anger or hurt feelings honestly and openly.
When both members of a couple have a healthy relationship with anger, they can feel it, say they’re upset, discuss what triggered them, and find a resolution and closure. Passive aggression is a symptom of the fear of conflict. While someone’s passive aggressive behavior may make you instantly feel like you’re in the middle of a fight, that’s what he or she is trying to avoid. Unfortunately, it makes it much harder to reach resolution and closure, because the anger is always simmering, never rising to the surface to be confronted.
Passive aggressiveness often stems from one’s childhood experience with anger. If you witnessed explosive anger as a child, where a caregiver yelled or displayed physical aggression, you are likely to grow up terrified of the emotion—not just of seeing someone get angry, but of feeling anger, too. Passive aggression can also spring from caretakers who treated anger like it was always on the emotional “no” list. Happiness? Yes. Sadness? Sure, everyone feels sad sometimes. Anger? Nope. Not in this house.
When we grow up believing that anger is always scary or is never allowed, we don’t learn how to feel it and express it in a way that is healthy and even beneficial to a relationship.
Over the course of my 35 years working in Santa Monica as a marriage and family therapist, and teacher of anger-management classes, I developed some specific tips for coping with passive aggression. Passive aggression is a learned behavior that can be unlearned. To help your partner confront and deal with his or her passive aggressiveness, you need to be clear that it’s not who your partner is that bothers you, but how he or she behaves some of the time. When the passive-aggressive person is you, then you need to take the same steps and remind yourself that it is a behavior that you have the power to change.
What to do in the heat of the moment
When passive aggression emerges in the middle of a conflict, here are seven steps to take.
1. Chill out. Attempting to begin a dialogue when one or both of you are in a very negative headspace will cause the person who behaves passive-aggressively to shut down or to escalate the situation. Take a minute to chill out and calm down before approaching each other and the issue.
2. Talk it out. Don’t try to guess or assume you know what your partner is feeling or thinking. Instead, ask your partner how he or she feels.
3. Brainstorm. The work of being in a successful relationship takes two people. As often as possible, come up with ideas for solutions to your issues together. Make your list of options as long and as wide-ranging as possible.
4. List pros and cons. Once you’ve finished brainstorming a list of possible solutions, talk through the pros and cons of each idea on the list.
5. Win-win. The best solution is the one where both of you win the most and lose the least.
6. Execute the plan. Take your win-win solution and execute it. It may take some time to see if it works. Make a plan in advance for when you’ll come back to evaluate.
7. Evaluate. Did your solution work? If not, try one of the other solutions on your list for another trial period.
How to eliminate passive-aggressive behavior over the long run
Of course, addressing passive aggression in the heat of the moment is, at best, a thin bandage. For many couples, passive aggression is a long-term pattern—and the best way to change the pattern is to work on it together, over time.
Eliminating passive aggressiveness involves establishing clarity about the dividing lines between you and your partner—and respect for each other’s emotional and physical space. It also calls for flexibility. Ideally, you and your partner can get to a place where you feel secure enough in your relationship that you can change your boundaries without fear of losing yourself or the relationship. You will feel flexible in your boundaries because it’s your choice, not because your partner is pressuring you.
If your partner is the one who is passive aggressive, you need to make sure he or she knows what it is they do or say that upsets and angers you, but they also need to hear that you love them and that expressing anger will not automatically end your relationship. If you’re the passive aggressive one in the relationship, you should be open to hearing what your partner has to say about how you can meet his or her emotional needs.
Here are three steps you can take to understand each other’s boundaries and create a healthier relationship to anger.
1. Make a list. Take some quiet time to yourselves to each make a list of some recent issues that have come up in your relationship. Write down the last time you felt angered by something your partner said or did and the last time you felt hurt by something your partner said or did. Write down one thing you wish you could change about your significant other’s behavior and one thing your partner could do to make you feel happier and more secure in your relationship.
2. Draw the boundaries. Looking over your list, can you identify any specific boundaries that would help you in your relationship? The more precise and tailored your request, the better.
If your partner’s demand that dinner is on the table every night angers you, don’t say, “It upsets me you never cook dinner; I’d be happier if you cooked more.” Instead, say, “It would mean a lot to me if you would be in charge of dinner on Monday nights since that’s the day I always have the most stress at work.” You don’t even have to ask that he or she cook the meal if that’s not what’s most important. Explain that takeout or delivery is okay with you as long as you don’t have to think about it or plan it.
3. Take one day at a time. To not make this about one partner needing to fix things and be better for the other, each of you should exchange one boundary or request. Do only one for now and see how it goes. But keep your lists and, in a few weeks, come back together for an update to see how this exercise went and to exchange one more request.
When in passive-aggressive conflict, remember to focus on the present or future rather than rehashing the past. While you may still be upset about the past, it’s not going to help you or your partner to keep bringing up old wounds when discussing current problems. Remember to respect your partner’s thoughts and feelings, and expect he or she to respect yours, too. Don’t forget to take responsibility for your behavior.
Finally, even if it’s your partner’s passive aggressiveness that has you reading articles online and doing seven-step exercises, remember you’re not perfect, either. Your focus should be on solving the problem at hand, not on being right, or better, or proving that you’re emotionally healthier. Everyone has room to improve and has a role in bettering a relationship.
|An alternative beauty in parenthood
||Vela has an amazing essay by a mother of a child with a rare chromosomal deletion. Put aside all your expectations about what this article will be like: it is about the hopes and reality of having a child, but it’s also about so much more. It’s an insightful commentary on the social expectations foisted … Continue reading "An alternative beauty in parenthood"
|8 Ways To Cope With An Abusive Narcissist
||What would you do if you were being abused (physically, emotionally, psychologically, or sexually) by someone you knew or thought you knew? Let’s say that person is emotionally and psychologically … ...
|Nightmares can be a warning sign of more serious mental problems
||New research has found that frequent nightmares increase the risk for suicide. The study, published in the peer-reviewed open access journal Scientific Reports, found that nightmares slightly increased the risk for suicide among both the general population and those who experienced front-line combat during the Second World War. Though war veterans experienced more nightmares in [...]
|Obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms predict cannabis misuse in young adults
||Individuals with more severe obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms are more likely to misuse marijuana, according to research published in the journal Addictive Behaviors. The study of 430 healthy young adult cannabis users found that severity of OCD symptoms was positively associated with cannabis misuse, but not frequency of cannabis use or quantity. Those who reported more OCD symptoms [...]
|New research finds replication studies are often unwelcome in psychology journals
||Only a small minority of psychology journals encourage the submission of replication studies, according to new research. The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, provides one reason why replications may not be performed or published enough. “Science progresses through replication and contradiction. The former builds the body of evidence, the latter determines whether such a [...]
|Theater is therapy for kids with hearing loss
||Performance can boost language learning for kids with hearing difficulties.
|15 Existential Questions that Could Improve Mental Health...
||Cartoon purchased from Andertoons by Mike Bundrant Do you regularly ponder life’s deeper meaning or existential questions? How about biting into juicy explorations of religion, morality, spirituality, and God? Or … ...
|Nice Women Finish Last
||I am assertive. And I am a nice guy. You are assertive. But are you a nice woman? Or a nasty one? In our gendered culture, niceness is a double-edged sword. It can be a fawning compliment or a searing denunciation. As you eyes crinkle … ...
|11 Things NOT To Do With Narcissists
||Different rules apply when coping with people who have unhealthy narcissism. Here are 11 “Don’ts” in dealing with narcissists: Don’t take them at face value. Image is everything to narcissists. … ...
|Wealth, Poverty, and the Brain: A Q&A With Kimberly Noble
||Are poorer children deprived of opportunities for healthy cognitive development? How can we improve these conditions? Kimberly Noble, MD, Ph.D., offers some insight.
|Promised Changes to Healthcare and Their Repercussions to the...
||Yes, the American Health Care Act and its aimed repeal of the Affordable Care Act failed. But once again, Congress is looking at taking action to change or limit benefits, including key mental health benefits, that have helped so many over the last few years. … ...
|This Picture Helps People Control Their Thoughts
||Cognitive control helps people resist temptations and make decisions that benefit them in the long-term.
• Click here for your free sample of Dr Jeremy Dean's latest ebook The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
• Dr Dean is also the author of Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything.
|Mental Illness: We Are Not Useless; We Can Find...
||So often I feel useless. I apply for a job, go to the interview, get hired, and on the first day, I can’t make it through orientation without paranoia or … ...
|Role of vascular disease in development of Alzheimer's disease
||Among adults who entered a study more than 25 years ago, an increasing number of midlife vascular risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and smoking, were associated with elevated levels of brain amyloid (protein fragments linked to Alzheimer's disease) later in life, report researchers.
|Infants show racial bias toward members of own ethnicity, against those of others
||Six- to nine-month-old infants demonstrate racial bias in favor of members of their own race and racial bias against those of other races, two new studies conclude.
|Use of antiparasitic drug as new treatment for brain tumors explored by researchers
||A new study is examining if a common medication administered to treat pinworms, could replace the current treatment used for certain brain cancers.
|Wiring of the 'little brain' linked to multiple forms of mental illness
||Nearly half of people with one mental illness also experience another mental illness at the same time. This is leading researchers to shift their focus away from individual disorders and search instead for common mechanisms or risk factors that might cause all types of mental disorders. Researchers have now linked specific differences in the cerebellum and pons to many types of mental illness.
|Interview with Dr. Bruce Fink, author of “Clinical Introduction...
||I am very excited to share with you my interview with Dr. Bruce Fink, a Lacanian psychoanalyst and analytic supervisor, regarding his new book, “A Clinical Introduction to Freud: Techniques … ...
|The Brain's Fixation on the Short Term Is Hurting Politics
||When the Senate used the nuclear option, changing how it confirms Supreme Court nominees, some who voted for it said it was a bad idea. A cognitive bias explains why they did it.