Overcoming Passivity and Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Ellyn Bader

…in the Early Stages of Therapy

Couples therapy has numerous challenges in the early sessions depending on the type of presenting problem. Our next few newsletters will focus on some unique challenges and what to do about them, beginning with passive behavior and passive-aggressive behavior.

A common pattern of highly distressed relationships is each partner wants the other to change first. The complaining partner wants massive personality changes. The “request” is more or less stated as a demand or accusation, with no awareness of how much is being requested.

When this happens, the pressure is on either you or the partner to do something to relieve the distress of the complainer. The complainer’s evidence seems irrefutable. The “angry, unemotional, irresponsible” partner has to change. The requester often makes the demand and then sits back and waits for the miracle to happen. The targeted partner does not want to respond to nagging, blaming, or criticism especially since they have their own case to build. And you, dear therapist, are caught in the middle.

This newsletter shows you one way to get out.

“Roger” was complaining about not getting enough support from his wife. He had been unemployed for the last two years with only sporadic efforts at seeking a job. He was staying at home and taking care of their 6 year old son. “Ann” was getting fed up with his timid efforts to find employment.

Roger said he wanted support and encouragement from Ann for his efforts instead of criticism. Ann replied that her support seemed to have little impact and that she mostly ended up frustrated with having hopes built up and dashed over and over again. Roger was tired of her criticism and impatience. The job market was very daunting and limited.

Both Roger and Ann can make a case for their position. So who needs to make the first move to create a shift and break their impasse? A strong operating principle that we use is that the person who initiates the request/demand is the one who makes the first shift to break the logjam. In this session, Roger goes first because he wants Ann to be different.

We would approach Roger by asking him the following questions:

1. What does he desire from Ann? Specifics are necessary.
2. What does the desire symbolize to him?
3. What are the benefits for him if he gets what he desires?
4. What will be the benefits to Ann if she does what he is requesting?
5. What will he do to make it easier for Ann to give him what he wants?

This approach helps remove passivity or passive aggressiveness from the request. This will also help you spot where the passivity is located.

Here’s how the questions unfolded for Roger and Ann.

1. Roger desired support from Ann. To Roger, support meant Ann would be interested in talking about his efforts and stroke his attempts when he made them. She would avoid being critical of his efforts and could offer suggestions from a more benevolent perspective. For example, “Roger, have you considered doing. or calling.?” Or “I think so and so might be receptive to hearing from you.” Voice tone and facial expression would be important in conveying the right support. It also meant Ann would consider encouraging Roger to start his own business, which intrigued Roger.

2. What does the desire symbolize To Roger? Ann’s support symbolized great teamwork and partnership. This aspect had great appeal to him.

3. What are the benefits for him if he gets what he desires? For Roger, the benefits would be feeling closer to Ann, feeling like she would really help him. His efforts would increase substantially.

4. What will be the benefits to Ann if she is more supportive? For Ann, the benefits would be greater and more enthusiastic efforts from Roger. The relationship would be strengthened and she could experience relief sooner from the burden of being the sole breadwinner.

So far so good. The answers are clear and specific.

5. What he will do to make it easier for Ann to give him what he wants? This is the point where Roger’s passivity showed up. Roger found this quite a difficult question. Even when it was reframed to how he might make it easier for her to support him, he was still at a loss in terms of what he could do.

Wanting support without accountability on his part was like a child’s wanting unconditional support from a parent. Roger’s reply revealed where he was stuck. He stated that was exactly what he wanted – support without accountability. We said to Roger that ongoing support is earned. Repeated support has to be earned -not simply requested. A major way to earn reliable support would be for him to be reliable and align his words with his actions.

At this point, Ann expressed enormous relief. Suddenly she knew why she had been so frustrated.

We discussed with Roger the importance of accountability and clarified Ann’s dilemma about being supportive. We ended the session asking Roger to define a homework assignment for himself: defining what changes he might make in his thoughts, feelings or actions. We did not want him to go back into passivity between sessions.

To summarize, when the couple is at an impasse look for:

Who is making the request?
What do they desire, specifically?
What does the desire symbolize to them?
What are the benefits for each person if they get what they desire?
How they can make it easier for the partner to give them what they want?

Other questions you can ask are: Why do you want what you want? How have you gone about getting it? Why have you done it that way? How easy or difficult do you think it is for your partner to respond to you? These questions help the client move beyond passive behavior and begin making their life better.

About 

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: Conflict Avoidant Couple,Getting Off to a Powerful Start,Passive Aggression,Therapists' Blog
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