Does Your Partner Drive You Nuts? The Passive Aggressive Personality

Ellyn Bader

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.


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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.

Want more help? Check out our audio workshop on passive aggressive partners.

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.


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."

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Category: Couples' Blog,Passive Aggression
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  1. Mimdful

    Nicely done enriches my mind with more ability to deal with all the day to day dificulty i face

  2. DLC

    Thank you for this article. I have been having problems with my spouse over similar things mentioned in your writing (tiny things that start a full blown fight, leaving both of us hurting, angry, and one of us sleeping on the couch). I felt my spouse had a more passive personality than I did and that was causing a lot of the tension. I tried looking through books, websites, and articles for advice. I hoped that I could bring some of the terms and explanations to his attention so that we could hash things out easier, but most of the things I find about passivity or passive aggression sounds too extreme. They talk about how our partner secretly delights in the stress they cause, how they will take out credit cards in our name, run up the balance and leave us with the bill; things that to the average person (with a SLIGHT passive tendency) sound ridiculous. You gave me something to work with that is a normal everyday application, something that sounds non-threatening. And for that I thank you.

  3. MrsBalta

    I have been dealing with my spouses behavior for 12 years it was up until I was looking for sites on signs the marriage was over I ran across passive aggressive behavior, that I see exactly who my husband is. I thought he was just purely evil and didn’t love me anymore. Now that I havr a better insight on his mind and tactics, I now after 12 years understand how to deal with him and open his eyes to how he has been abusive. He is a little calmer and surprised that I found him out. I’m not going to let my guard down, because I know as they say they are very difficult to change if never. Thanks for your research and help.

  4. Freya

    Thank you for the smplicity of this, and the perspective. I’ve been looking for an understanding of what’s been happening in my relationship and I’ve found it. Next question, for me, is why I’ve attracted it…

    • I also have wondered why I attractive p/a people. Twice now, I have got burned by these people. It seems they can sense we have a helpful nature and we make an excellent prey for them to lease out their “stuff” on us. Perhaps we ourselves have an somewhat dependent way and we look for a soft place to land? Another thought, a taker can always smell a giver.

  5. I am also dealing with a passive aggressive husband and it is truly driving me crazy. He loves to look like the calm cool collective man that he is not especially when all the kids and their spouses come home. I have been married for close to 35 years!!! I just don’t think I can take it any longer. Divorce is not an option, but going insane isn’t either. From the 2nd year of marriage I have asked him to go with me to counseling….He will NOT do it cause there is nothing wrong with him! I am the only one with a problem. I have gone to couseling myself and it does help me to cope. He says one thing and does another…..he procrastinates…he never asks me before he turns the oven off (ruins the dinner), or puts the clothes in the dryer (shrinks clothes), hides items from me, does everything the opposite of how I ask him to do it….says he can do it anyway he wants. Yikes!! It is worse then having a child or an out of control animal in the house. If I set something in a certain place in my home, in my room…etc…..he will change everything. And when I can’t find it or when I am angry he gets such a smirk on his face…..I feel like I am in a never ending nightmare!

  6. I have been married 27 years. My husband’s passive aggressive behavior has almost killed me literally. The past 3 years has been most emotionally stressed for me. Being treated for stress, anxiety, panic attacks, loss of weight, fighting depression, I couldnt handle his behavior and get well in my body. I. packed and ran for my life, my sanity, and a even a chance to save the marriage. The separation has been extremely painful especially with unanswered questions. I couldn’t figure out if I was crazy, didn’t understand my husband crazy-making behavior until one my girlfriends described my husband as passive aggressive. After coming across websites like this has given me a since of relie. Everything I’ve read about PAs fits my husband to a T. And i tried to get him
    to take a look at the symptoms.However, instead of seeing it as a way for our relationship to get
    better, he felt I was attacking him as PAs often do. It doesn’t matter what concerns or issues I try to discuss with him, gently or not, crying or not, he saw it as me attacking him, blaming him. He does not take responsibility or accountability for anything. He
    completely shuts down on me and quietly punishes me or get back at me. 99% of the time he does not
    communicate with me about anything. Only when he wanted something from me, he would communicate. Any concerns I had, he would totally ignore. It amazes me how he would stonewall
    me. Not just for days but months! He totally detach himself from me with no intention or concern of
    working through the problem. So I could never get him to show any concerns for my feelings, which
    chips away at your self esteem. It said that i didnt matter. When in a corner, he would blatantly lie.
    Present himself has calm but full of anger which i would later have to suffer the consequences through his undermining way. I would beg, plead, cry, pray, trying to get him to treat me right, trying to
    get him to make this marriage work. Have asked him WHY countless times.. To no avail. We’ve gone to counseling twice in past 3 years. Each time he never finish. Two different therapist required work
    from him. He didnt like that and stop going but yet said he would do anything to save marriage (lie)
    He NEVER explained to me why he stopped going. Being exhausted emotionally, physically, I didn’t bother to ask why. It had gotten to be too much for me. His behavior was as if the counseling never
    happened or existed. Much like how he’s treating me now. Together over 30 years and he has
    discarded me like a piece of trash. Refusing to communicate with me. Taking every opportunity to be
    spiteful to me. Ive learned because he doesn’t know how to deal with his anger, he cannot accept
    responsibility or accountability, he only surround himself around those that do not hold him
    accountable and thinks he’s the best thing since slice bread. He creates his own world that makes him comfortable.. In the relationship, either I had to accept him and his abusive behavior or jump
    ship. I held on for as long as I could. Suffering with stress, in and out of ER, no reasoning with him,
    absolutely emotionally exhausted. It seem the more I begged him, the worse he got. It was as if he
    thrived on my misery. What happened to this man? … I had to decide whether I wanted to live or die. It
    was THE HARDEST decision I have made in my life as my family is most important to me. However, abuse overt or covert is unacceptable. I never thought I would be in this place at this point of my life. My heart is still open to saving my marriage if my husband recognize his issue and seek help for it.

    • I read your history and thought you were describing my story. HOWEVER: my now ex-husband stopped having sex with me 20 years ago; stopped sleeping in the same room with me 16 years ago; lied about working; criticized my job (I supported the family x 24 years); stopped doing things as a family 8 years ago; started biking 6 years ago and forgot that he had a family; has not worked FT in 16 years; consulted even though his financial contribution was bare bones; belittled me in front of our daughter and his friends for years. Now we are divorced and he has yet to move his personal belongings out of the house; the basement and garage areas remain in a hoarding state. What my question is: WHY would I stay married to a person who is neither a man; a father or a husband for 24 years? Is it because we had a child? This male person was NOT a provider for his family; a mooch; a person who was not able to provide spiritual/ emotional/ intimacy/ financial efforts to a marriage.

      • I only say this out of empathy for you. Get out of the marriage. He isn’t EVER going to change. Best predictor of his future behavior is looking at his past. In all this time he isn’t even willing to admit he has a problem. I hate divorce-been thru it twice-I would never recommend it-but in your case I am sorry. For your own happiness and sanity-GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT! of your marriage. Go find the happiness you deserve, it starts with getting out.

    • Wow: I have read your testimony. I feel like you wrote my life with my now ex-husband. I could take it anymore. He sucked all the joy out of my life. I to feel if he were to change I would take him back. Im not counting on it though. The one most crazy behaviors my ex husband had was. If I asked he him anything, his response was always NO. He meant Yes. In his head Yes was always the answer. Then a fight would occur cuz I could never understand the NO. He would say I never said that. So on and so on. I would turn and mouth to myself WTF. I was loosing who I was. I thought I was going crazy. My third child just graduated from high school. I feared what my life would have been like with just us. I did meet a man. I enjoyed his conversation a lot. Because it was normal. I did try for a year to get him to understand how I was feeling. I went online, read books, went to therapist, pastors. After awhile I could tell he had no interest. The covert abuse was rampant. I just ended the marriage. I feel stuck in my feelings. This was not what I wanted for myself. The is so much more. I feel I could write a book. It was an extremely hard decision. Good luck

  7. I think I have a passive aggressive partner. I always thought it had been me through the years, or at least that’s what she’d tell me whenever I’d complain about something which I thought was inappropriate, and I believed her. So I’d read books, try self improvement courses, even visited and did CBT.

    I believed her because when she met she always said she’d never lied EVER, so I respected her opinion. Only years later did tell me, she used to lie about things to upset me. Though she now denies she said that!

    I didn’t do any of these “self-help” things before, it all started about 5-6 years of marriage, I used to be a normally happy guy. But since then I’ve had two break-downs (my own fault because I tried to play her at her own game, which just ended up as guilt and feeling bad for me BIG MISTAKE). And I now have no friends, I’ve been virtually removed from my family circle and I rarely see them, talking about them seems to raise an eyebrow and a dismissive ‘oh your family’.

    And I’m constantly told it’s actually all my fault, I’m the one who had the break down. I’ve no doubt some is, but all of it?

    I came from a very lovey family environment. We had problems of course, but hugging and generally sharing feelings was the norm. I thought that’s how it would be with my wife, but I feel foolish, hurt and I regret ever meeting her, but at the same time I love her!! She is a great mother, and at times a great wife.

    Apart from the standard always 15-20 minutes late I get if I need a lift. I’m not willing to share too many things (there are a lot), but the biggest kick in the face for me was supposedly not performing well in bed. Then being told it’s not the best compared to others. The next day I confronted her on it and thought it was hurtful. “It was a joke, jesus, can’t you take a joke? That’s your problem, you just can’t take a joke. And what about all the things you say to me” on which I get a list on why I’m actually not a great person before going off in a huff because I’m getting angry (which is true, I used to rise to it). I’m the one then who ends up apologizing and still feeling frustrated because I got my feelings hurt without any acknowledgement:-S On this occasion, it was just that she’d been tired, so instead of just telling me that , I get punished with something I found quite hurtful. Even if it’s not true. Or is it? I’m not sure anymore. I just don’t have any confidence in myself to say ‘It’s like this?’ in fact, I’m already feeling guilty/nervous for sharing this.

    Sorry, none of this really makes sense. I just feel a bit down today and I wanted to write it down somewhere.

    • Simon
      Thanks. You saved me trying to describe the contradictions of my relationship with my PA wife & my sanity perhaps. As I am trying to play my wife at her own PA game & going nuts.
      I wish I didnt love her so much. I’m in trouble! lol or should that be Sh*******!

  8. I’m 68 and have had a screwed up life. I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m beyond that. I’m writing about my feelings, because I have been fooling myself with the thought of being a reasonably decent person, never intentionally setting out to cause angst. It is said everyone is looking for love. I have no memory of experiencing love as a child. I came from a dysfunctional family, and find it difficult to relate to love within relationships. My father’s nerves were shot with nervous anxiety on his return from WWII. He was a hard working man but totally devoid of emotion. My mom wore the “pants” around the house, and was the voice to be heard. Although quick to anger, I do recall an infrequent display of love or kindness. My father didn’t row. It was mom who usually hysterically shouted at dad. This has allowed me to develope a rather jaundiced outlook on women, as confrontational beings. It had been many years later when I realised her outbursts were out of sheer frustration with dad. I never had any girl friends, in spite of being well built six footer. There was nine years between me and my older brother. He too had his emotional problems and left home at 18 years old. He was a good brother to me and I can remember thinking to myself as a nine year old, that I will never see him again. I was right. He remained a bachelor until his death at age 51. My first wife walked out on me for her new found love after 12 years of marriage, and left me with my 12 year old son. She had a long string of broken relationships before she met me. She did not have a loving relationship with her own dad. In hind site this was probably a recipe for disaster from the word go, as we married only six weeks after first meeting. I think we both confused lust with love from the outset. A few months after my divorce I met my second (current) wife at a divorce & separates club. Her husband died and left her with two young kids. We were both lonely, and miserable, so we threw in together, to try and make a better life. We too married shortly after meeting. Bringing up her two and my one, was a challenging nightmare. Nobody really got on well together. I was emotionally ill equipped to deal with such a scenario. I struck my own son once for being out of line and immediately regretted it, and never laid a hand on anyone else since. They are grown up now. My blood son has a family of his own, but both step kids are in there 30’s and still single and are avowed to remain that way. My wife has always been hyper-sensitive, and has suffered with agoraphobia for the last 20 years. It was triggered by a car accident we were both in. In short there hasn’t been many laughs or good times, but I shouldn’t complain as many others are far worse off. I must count my blessings.

  9. Wow…legit complaints from me are met by ” I never do anything right”….or….”you always want to argue”…. Or ….”I didn’t know”….or….”you are perfect but I’m not”…. Or….”that’s my business don’t worry about it”….or “why are you bringing that up” or………etc…..dishes sit in the sink for four days…but it’s my fault for making dishes when I cook…..laundry sits in and on the dryer but it’s, “thorn why don’t you take them out”….but she did the laundry….student loans in default after she waited for seven years to address the issue although I told her that procrastinating would led to default and effect our ability to buy a home….her response….why are you bringing up the past… do I do?…. I’m frustrated and ready to cash out?

  10. Woke up today to wet glasses stacked on top of wet dishes….wet containers stacked on wet containers…clothes stacked on dryer…all things discussed ad nauseim. Wish I would have paid more attention before having a child with her…I would be out otherwise.

  11. Only a passive aggressive person would counter every point and reverse everything. A discussion on how she treats me as a man and projects her anger onto me is countered with “you leave dirty spoons on the counter.” Idiot.

  12. Wow! I read the help for passive aggressive couples and how to help him. The advice is to give him more down time and praise him for what he does do. Honey, I’ve tried the praise routine. I’ve given him space to relax and decompress an do what needs to get done at his leisure. He never gets done. Right now I am looking at my lawn that hasn’t been mowed in two weeks. I haven’t mowed it, which I normally do just because it has to get done and isn’t worth the hassle. I’ve suggested it. I have said nothing and still it’s like anything else. It doesn’t get done.

    We were working on paving stones two weeks ago. Of course it has to be done with me here or he won’t do it. I praised him, said wow don’t you feel good, isn’t it amazing and so forth. It still isn’t finished because it’s waiting for him to cut some stones. He only worked part time this week as in 16 hours, I worked two jobs. Plus housework. And I still managed to lay down some of the stones.

    Ok sorry, some of that is venting. Seriously, this man is making me crazy. He’s 48 years old. I have no clue he can’t hold a job, he can’t do the most basic of household chores, I am lucky if he feeds the dogs which is about the only thing I can count on. Putting out water for them is a 50/50. It’s like living with a preteen and I don’t have children. But I have heard from people and have lots if nieces and nephews to hear those conversations.

    Here’s my thoughts grow up and put on your big boy pants or please get out. He’s making me sick. I am tired and I can’t keep up the pace. I have to clean up after him too. Plus work all the time.

  13. My husband and I have known each other for over 20 years. When we met as teenagers, (What do teenagers know, right) I thought he was my soulmate. He was so gentle, kind and considerate. His sole purpose was to make me happy, and I felt the same way. Now, it seems like he is a different person. It’s always someone else’s fault; He can’t take criticism; He will say one thing, do another and then defend how I either interpreted what he said or what he did wrong. It is frustrating and heartbreaking to deal with this type of confusion and uncertainty and he seems to be totally ambivalent to the situation. This leads me to question whether he really loves me or is just playing some sort of emotional hokey pokey with my feelings. Almost like he is testing me to see how much I can endure before calling it quits, so he can cluelessly say “What happened.” ” I had no idea you were so unhappy.” ” Did I do something to make you feel this way.” I’m so confused because I feel this is not the person that I fell in love with. To his credit, we have gone to several counselors; however, things will get better for a week and then he reverts back to his old behaviors. I’m emotionally exhausted. Thanks for listening and letting me vent.

  14. As I read all of your responses, the one resounding thought in my head is “my god, they are describing my wife to a TEE!”. Ive been married for 13 years now, and have 2 young children. In the beginning my wife was affectionate, loving, and fun to be with. We lived together for a year before we got married. It was literally from the day after we were wed that her passive aggressive behavior started. After our wedding she stopped holding my had, we took both our immediate families out to dinner and she sat her niece in between us. The I noticed that she began to with hold sex, stopped touching me, and never talked with me about anything. The she started giving me an attitude whenever I asked her to do anything, and even managed to screw up even the most menial task. When I tried to express my feelings, I would me wet with either a blank stare, rolling of the eyes, or she would simply stare off to the side and say nothing, or “whatever”. I was going crazy because I could not figure out what the problem was. We went to couples therapy, and all of a sudden she was a waterfall of emotion, where I was the bad guy, and she told lie upon lie. I swear, I didn’t know who this women was. I tried to stick it out after the birth of our 2 children, but things just kept getting worse. It became clear that she had absolutely no regard for my feelings. And no matter what I said to her she would either come up with some excuse or blame me for it. Nothing was ever her fault. I spoke recently, to a psychologist friend about this and she said that my wife seems like an extreme passive aggressive. I didn’t know exactly what a passive aggressive was until I followed her direction and did some research. My wife and I have not slept in the same bed in years, we have zero intimacy, and no communication. She is also an extreme procrastinator, when we first met she was working on her PHD, 2 years ago I found out that she had let her research lapse to the point where it was no longer valid, I flipped out over that. I sent her to school to do medical transcription, and she did that for a while until she slacked off and got fired, I paid for her to go back to college to get a teaching degree, only to find out that she had taken the last 3 semesters off. Having finally seen the futility of trying to change her or work things out I have decided that my mental health and sanity must come before my desire to keep my family together, and am now seeking a divorce.

  15. I am sorry your journey has been so painful. I hope understanding these dynamics will console you a little bit.

  16. kah

    Wow, I can not believe what I am reading. It fits my husband to a T. Ive been married almost 20 years , and have been confused and upset for so long. Just knowing I”m not crazy helps.

  17. poslaw

    I, too, am in this situation with my husband. I’ve spent the last 10 years battling him, and I’m so tired. I slipped into a deep depression. I went on medication to help me deal with passive suicidal ideation. My physical health has deteriorated. Now I just want him out. I feel guilty because I think he will honestly end up homeless, but I can’t let my 7 year old daughter grow up thinking this is normal. At least now I might be able to stop questioning myself: my perceptions, my observations, my motivations, and my sanity–all because he refuses to acknowledge that *he* might have a problem. Thank you for that. Thank you to all you beautiful people who shared your stories. I am absolutely overwhelmed to know that I am NOT crazy, and it’s not “just me”.

  18. Kitty.

    Do I have to register to post a comment

  19. Fred

    I thought I was ok. Then my wife forwarded this article to me. She said please read it slowly and take it all in. NOW I realize that I am a PA (perfect asshole). This is probably a result of the over critical parental treatment, but I blame myself for not recognizing any of the above. I have always been a good provider, working many years of long hours. I have also often worked at home remodeling, building, etc. The household chores are another story. It is SO hard to do the redundant tasks required by every household. I have plenty of energy, but It just seems like such an invasion on the few precious free minutes that I get (distorted thinking).
    My wife is a dear soul who does not deserve any of the treatment mentioned above in various comments. Life brings enough challenges without dealing with my BS every day. Omitting the detail, the things I just read are way too familiar in our relationship. We are currently involved in couples counseling, but now I feel that I should be seeking individual help. Our marriage will surely benefit if I can change. Bless her heart for putting up with me this long. Thank you for the article and postings, in helping me to be aware of my own behavior.

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