Love is patient, love is kind, love is… passive aggressive?
When your partner resorts to passive-aggressive tendencies, it’s hard to ask about their day, let alone grow closer as a couple. Even the most emotionally resilient of individuals waiver when faced with yet another “fine, whatever.”
And if you yourself have passive aggressive tendencies, you might have noticed it’s harder and harder to get past a certain point in emotional conversations – and that you shut down when feeling inundated with inconvenient feelings, like anger or sadness. Over time, continuous communication that’s hardly harmonious can put a major block on your connection.
The good news is, this pattern is breakable. Here’s how to connect better in a passive-aggressive relationship:
First, understand what passive aggressiveness is at its core
“I see passive aggressiveness as an unwillingness or inability to show vulnerability,” says Sage Goodwin, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Rhode Island.
“The reason for this inability may be about past history, or about the current state of the relationship and how safe it is to be vulnerable. It is often a form of self-protection. The passive-aggressive behavior is the person avoiding talking about their authentic feelings, such as hurt, fear, or sadness.”
Underneath the snark often lurks a fear of rejection and a longing for acceptance. Such fears can be so strong that they can cause a vicious cycle of push and pull.
The tactics certainly don’t spring up overnight – passive-aggressive behavior is often developed during childhood. Some people learn to express their needs indirectly through subtle ways so the other person can’t fully reject or disapprove of them.
Other times, passive-aggressive traits just come to full force because of issues in the relationship. “When a relationship gets stuck in negative patterns of interaction, the emotional safety and connection diminishes,” says Goodwin.
Next, know the signs of passive-aggressive behavior
Whether you’re on the receiving end or are passive aggressive yourself, knowing the signs can help stop such hostility in its tracks.
Consider the following two statements:
“You’re going out after work with your co-workers again? No, I’m not mad.”
“When you go out with your co-workers I feel hurt because I feel you are prioritizing them over me. I would really love to spend the evening with you.”
The first hints, but doesn’t come outright. The second sends a clear signal. The major difference? The second example is a healthy, emotionally vulnerable statement – and oftentimes, that’s a hard place to get to if you’re stuck in a passive-aggressive rut.
Other typical examples of passive-aggressive behavior might include:
- Backhanded compliments
- Throwing insults and attacks disguised as “jokes”
- Ignoring your partner
- Procrastinating out of sheer spite
When one or both partners in a relationship communicate via passive-aggressive communication, they get more disconnected – and fall deeper into their negative cycle.
Understand the difference between passive-aggressive patterns, and more harmful behavior
There’s a difference between having difficulty in effectively communicating with your loved ones versus experiencing manipulation, controlling behavior, or emotional abuse.
If you’re on the receiving end of constant verbal criticism, feel consistently blamed for your partner’s unhappiness, experience the hallmarks of gaslighting, or you’re outright ignored on a regular basis, please keep in mind that this is past the line of passive-aggressive behavior.
Examples of behavior that crosses that line include, but aren’t limited to:
- Undermining, e.g., “You don’t even know what you’re talking about”
- Name-calling, e.g., “You’re too dumb to figure it out.”
- Outright criticism, e.g., “Way to screw up yet again.” “How many times do I have to tell you before you finally get it?”
- Manipulation, e.g., “If you really loved me, you would do this for me.”
It’s also important to note that ultimately, it comes down to how your partner is making you feel. If the way your partner is communicating with is making you feel unsafe, or you’re past the point of conciliation, consider reaching out to a therapist who can help you set boundaries and heal.
Five ways to connect better in a passive-aggressive relationship
Once you’re clear on your partner’s patterns – and understand the difference between passive-aggressive behavior versus more harmful scenarios – you can start to set the stage for deeper, more meaningful connection with your partner. Here’s how:
Allow yourself to be vulnerable
If you’re the passive aggressive one in the relationship, you need to give yourself permission to open up. Yes, being vulnerable can be scary – especially if doing so has caused hurt in the past. But said risk of vulnerability, over and over again, allows you to feel more connected and accepted by your loved one.
Know that you don’t have to share all of your deepest, darkest, secrets all at once. All you have to do is give yourself the green light to be more expressive. If you can do that, you’re already on the right track.
Communicate openly and honestly
In order to connect with your partner emotionally, vulnerability is key. One of the best ways to overcome a fear of being vulnerable is to say it out loud. Tell your partner, “Opening up is scary for me because I’m scared of how you will respond, but I want to give it a try.” If your partner loves and accepts you, they will create that safe space for you to share.
Practice acceptance in your relationship
If your partner is the passive aggressive one, practicing patience and acceptance is key. Just to be clear, you should never tolerate someone being purposely hurtful and insulting. But if you know that your partner is acting out because they’re hurting, be understanding. Tell them that you accept them no matter what they think or feel.
Use words of affirmation daily
Verbalizing your love for them on a daily basis can change the way they think about themselves and how people see them. If they know that you care, it will be easier for them to open up and connect with you on a deeper level.
Consider seeking outside help
The reality is, practicing acceptance be allowing yourself to be vulnerable are easier said than done. That’s especially true if your fears and insecurities are deeply rooted.
Discussing your fears with a therapist who specializes in relationships can bring healing and new depths of closeness to your relationships. “In Emotionally Focused Therapy, we work on making it safer for both partners to express how they are really feeling in order to replace a negative cycle with a more positive dance,” says Goodwin.
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Connecting in a passive-aggressive relationship will take work from both you and your partner. But if you can create a safe space for the two of you to openly share how you’re really feeling, you can develop much healthier communication patterns moving forward.