Asking your mate to empty the dishwasher should theoretically be totally devoid of drama or tension. It’s just one of many chores necessary to keep your home functioning–right?
However, with a passive aggressive personality, any situation has the potential to go from the trivial to emotional combat.
It started with the simple question from my wife, Ellyn, “Pete did you empty the dishwasher?”
I didn’t respond but begrudgingly left the History Channel and headed for the kitchen, knowing I had agreed to do it before now.
I hadn’t put more than three coffee cups into the cupboard when Ellyn informed me I wasn’t unloading the dishwasher properly.
“Oh, really just what do you suggest?” said I, packing 100 pounds of sarcasm into that question without a shred of genuine curiosity.
Ellyn – seemingly stunningly oblivious – responded as though I had some interest in learning a better way. “Empty the bottom rack first so dishes don’t get dripped on when you empty the top rack.”
I fired the second salvo of sarcasm when thanking her for the lessons on dishwasher liberation.
Many times Ellyn has gotten mad at me for not following through with an agreement. This was the real problem for Ellyn and the dishwasher. After I’d blown numerous promises, she would understandably get tense in her voice and face while expressing her frustration.
OK, so far this is pretty normal stuff for most marriages. But I could take it to new heights. I would criticize Ellyn for the way she got mad at me. I’d change the topic. The problem became her unreasonable way of expressing disappointment instead of my broken agreement.
Doing this tricky psychological maneuver took absolutely no effort, thinking or planning on my part. Just pure instinct. The implication was that if she would just change the way she expressed her frustration the problem would be solved. Better yet, if she just had more patience, I would eventually get around to getting it done.
Poor Ellyn, she was doomed if she got angry and doomed if she said nothing. Welcome to the crazy world of the passive aggressive partner.
Although I wasn’t a full fledged, card carrying passive aggressive personality, I had the qualifications to be an honorary member of the club.
Here’s a big secret about this problem. Passive aggressive behavior is a very difficult challenge for couples. The passive aggressive person is a pain to live with and very hard to change.
Here’s why. Passive-aggressive people are typically hypersensitive to actual or perceived criticism. Especially when they don’t follow through with promises. Here’s the kicker. They have great gobs of good reasons for not following through with crucial agreements.
For example, I could blame my failure to complete agreements on ADD. Or I might say that I suffer from a condition of temporary and intermittent cognitive slippage (which is only a devious description of being lazy and forgetful).
This is a problem that affects both partners, but in different ways. The passive aggressive person generally feels they are under assault and no matter what they do, they cannot please their partner. “Jeez, I can’t even empty the dishwasher right!”
The other partner believes they cannot depend on the passive aggressive mate to reliably follow through. Even if I am 80% reliable, as I would sometimes point out to Ellyn, she has no idea what the 80% will be or when it will be completed. This screws up the logistical part of being an effective team which supports being an effective couple.
So what causes this aggravating problem that painfully affects both partners in different ways? Most passive aggressive folks have two things in common:
1. A highly critical parent or parents, resulting in a high sensitivity to being judged on performance.
2. A lot of painful disappointments in life. This results in a reflexive coping mechanism that severely restricts their hopes and desires in life. Minimizing desires is a subconscious attempt to avoid getting hopes up and then dashed which triggers a warehouse of painful disappointments stored in the emotional brain.
It becomes much easier for passive aggressive people to say what they don’t want than what they do want.
It’s like running life’s race with your shoelaces tied. But the frustration of living a life of pinched desires leaks out in being “obstructionistic” – to their spouse, therapist, boss, and anyone else that might have a say, or at least a suggestion, about what they should do.
“I don’t like anyone telling me what to do, including myself,” said Bill, who has a passive aggressive personality. This is not an easy mind-set for a spouse to live with.
All in all nobody is happy.
Passive aggressive behavior can show up in other subtle ways. Hard core passive aggressive people rarely initiate doing leisure joint activities, buying things, going places, celebrating special occasions, planning surprises, or giving compliments, and they often have a hard time buying gifts.
So what can you do? This is a complex question with no easy answer. The solutions to this problem are extremely hard to summarize with the clarity and brevity required for a newsletter column. Next month I’ll describe why passive aggressive behavior is a systemic problem and what both partners need to do. In the meantime, it should be some small comfort to understand some of the challenges and to recognize what you’re dealing with.
About Ellyn Bader
Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., and her husband, Dr. Peter Pearson, are founders and directors of The Couples Institute and creators of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy.
Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."
Tags: ADD, change, desires, emotional brain, frustration, Passive Aggressive, passive aggressive audio, Passive Aggressive Behavior Forward to a Friend