Ellyn Bader

Momentum-imageMany therapists dread working with couples where one partner is extremely passive or passive-aggressive. Passive-aggressive partners create a lot of confusion. Commitments are regularly broken, and criticism and passivity dominate the couple’s interactions. Their spouse is usually enormously frustrated and angry. Any attempts by the couple to change the pattern fail, and increasingly the interpersonal dynamics between these partners zap the life right out of the relationship – until the life force is gone.

In fact, once a couple has interacted like this for years, they aren’t very likely to unravel the pattern themselves. And you won’t be able to unravel it if you:

  1. Try to create negotiated agreements about who will do what by when.
  2. Ask the passive-aggressive partner to become more accountable.
  3. Keep giving insights about how the couple’s system is functioning.
  4. Increase your level of empathy about how frustrated they each feel.
  5. Allow nagging/criticism from the non-passive spouse to continue without interruption and confrontation.

Some of these interventions come easily and naturally to a trained therapist. There is just one problem. In an entrenched system with a chronically passive-aggressive partner, they won’t work.

These interventions help you bond with the couple. The couple will like you at first, and then the trouble will start: they will come back week after week replaying the same disappointing cycle, and any momentum you had early in therapy is now lost.

So here’s what can you do instead.

Start with the more active spouse. Working actively with this partner is one good way to build momentum. Ask the spouse to set limits on himself or herself first. For example, “What I will do and what I won’t do.” Ask him or her to set these limits so that they don’t keep feeling angry. It is essential that this partner stops their unrelenting criticism and creates some discomfort in the other without raging.

Here is an example of an effective limit. The situation is that the passive-aggressive spouse agrees to clean the garage, but it never happens.

The spouse might say, “You have made commitments to clean the garage, but you don’t follow through. So, I will clean up my part this weekend. I will even help you with yours. If you don’t participate or don’t take care of your part by two weeks from now, I will hire a handyman to take the remaining mess to the dump.”

This type of limit shifts discomfort back to the partner who does not keep agreements. Then the spouse must be quiet for the two weeks and call the handyman if nothing happens.

Later explain to each of them the dilemma that exists for the passive-aggressive partner.

The passive-aggressive partner has never been supported in being direct about their passions and desires. Instead, when he or she was a child, they probably had repeated experiences of wanting something, getting something else instead, feeling disappointed and then being shamed for feeling disappointed.

For example, a boy raised by a single father wanted his father to be at home when he came home from school. Instead his father told him to go to the neighbor’s house. His son felt sad about never having a parent at home. His father said, “You are a baby and a sissy. A 10-year old boy should be able to fend for himself.”

As adults these partners do not allow themselves to want and desire openly. Essentially their attachment desires go underground. Directly wanting is not safe for these partners. Instead of expressing their own wants and desires, they will thwart their partner’s wishes.

Directly expressing a differentiated desire will create enormous anxiety. This is necessary anxiety for growth and development. It is what is needed, although rarely what is wanted.

When you help the passive or passive-aggressive spouse understand the dilemma of their situation and you help the other spouse set clear guidelines and limits so they don’t live with so much uncertainty, you give both partners a way to change their immobilizing pattern. You also give them a sense that you understand them and will be able to help them.


Act Now

  1. Please comment below by describing any other difficult situations you experience where your momentum got lost.
  2. My online training program includes two lessons and several calls specifically on working with passive-aggressive partners and their spouses. For more information visit Developmental Model.

This blog post is from a 9-part series called “Avoid Losing Control, Momentum or Direction in Couples Therapy.” Click here to see the other articles in the series.


Ellyn Bader, Ph.D., is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator 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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Maria Giuliana
Maria Giuliana
5 years ago

This happens to be the biggest problem in my own marriage.
I also work with couples and families and am always interested at learning more effective ways to help them.

Thanks for your blogs.

Talli Rosenbaum
Talli Rosenbaum
5 years ago

Would there not first be acknowledgement of and empathy for the triggering wounds of the passive aggressive partner and insight oriented work to get him to grieve for what he never got? Otherwise, what about this being an empathy failure? The truth is, with one of my couples like this (she is avoiding and he is very passive aggressive) she ‘pulled out” after giving birth and I am doing this work with him alone.

Dr. Ronna Phifer-Ritchie
Dr. Ronna Phifer-Ritchie
5 years ago

Excellent model here! “Shift the discomfort” is a great phrase for doing psycho-education with the non-passive partner, because, and i speak from my personal life as well as my professional life, a lot of times the non-passive partner gets too comfortable with being in chronic psychic distress and protest. (And as tot he point made by the reader just above my post here, yes, but i think some of the brilliance in Ellyn’s approach here is remembering that EVEN empathetic focus can be TOO much for the passive partner at first. They have to learn to having their feeling accurately reflected does not mean catastrophe.)

5 years ago

Talli -acknowledgement and empathy are good – but very limited if you and/or the partner seek change and growth in the passive aggressive partner.
I had to keep learning this lesson the hard way.

5 years ago

Thanks for writing about the passive-aggressive partner Ellyn. Sometimes, I find myself just getting frustrating not realizing I’m dealing with a passive-aggressive person! Therefore all of the items you mentioned that do NOT work I have tried and you are so right, they don’t. It felt good to see them in print and to see exactly what i’m dealing with. I like the emphasis you put on empowering the partner to set limits and follow through on them while educating the passive-aggressive partner about their ineffective ways of managing life.

5 years ago

Please help me. As the wife of a passive aggressive spouse who has been in psychic distress (and the blood pressure to show for it) years of marriage and individual therapy has made no change.
When I finally came out of the fog of what I was up against, I completely lost it. We separated.
However with three children at home, the oldest becoming passive Agressive himself, I wonder if it is better for the kids to try the above mentioned type
of therapy. All the marriage therapy we’ve had so far has incorporated exactly the five points listed above–except number five. I was shut down while he gained empathy for putting up with a “demanding” wife.
Meanwhile I live in a hovel that he won’t fix or allow me to fix. Among many other obstructing behavior, and this guy makes a lot of money…
And the children escape to him rather than be accountable for
chores, getting up on time, etc
If we were to work with someone with knowledge and experience of the above, could this be saved?? I’ve put in years and my main concern is for the kids.
We are in the Los Angeles area if anyone has any suggestions.
Thank you, Liz

5 years ago

I’ve found that this approach worked for me both
as a therapist and in my marriage. This does not
preclude empathy for each spouse. I’m eager to
learn more about including inner child work in the
couple sessions.

Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT
Kathy Hardie-Williams, M.Ed, MS, NCC, LPC, LMFT
5 years ago

Great article with valuable tools! I completely agree. This strategy also allows the spouse relying on the passive aggressive one to follow through not to feel so powerless and thus, more enraged, which only adds to the vicious cycle.

5 years ago

When I wrote that this approach helped in my work as a therapist I was referring to making a plan of action and telling the passive aggressive partner what s/he will do if partner doesn’t take care of what needs to be done. but the interpretation of what childhood experiences may have contributed to his underground aggression was not part of my approach and I would like to incorporate it because it would make the passive aggressive partner feel understood and supported even while he will have to face realistic and fair consequences

5 years ago

Hi…I’ve been in a marriage for over 20 yrs. Counseling 3 to 4 times that showed a little improvement, but in the past few years. I finally figure out this pass two years …my husband is a passive aggressive behavior problems. One thing I have been asking him and arguing with him for 10 yrs over and over with. He only drives my van a few times out of the year. He adjust my mirrors inward to show 1/4th of the side of my van. A few days later on or a week later. I get into my vehicle and take off not remembering he had drove it a few days back. I live in the city and start to merge into another lane going about 60 / 65 miles per hour. My blind side of the mirrors on both sides of my van doesn’t show that there is a car there in the lane. Then all of a sudden I have the other car honking at me …due to I almost crashed together with them. I’m over 60 and can’t remember things like I use to. This is putting my life in danger not counting when my grandkids are with me a lot. I have expressed this to him over and over….he could kill us all by doing this. He keep on doing it! A few months ago June 2016 …my grandson caught him changing the mirrors and said, Grandma doesn’t want you to change the mirrors. Grandpa replied back to him, “If Grandma wants them moved back…then she can do it herself”.
I’m to the point feeling that he wants me dead…no matter the cost. Our relationship is not a strong one at all, but I really don’t know who to talk to about this with. We both are working on the adoption of both of our grandkids 7 & 11, and I have no family on my side in the state we live in. Only his family and friends lives here. If I told them…they would think I’m crazy and would totally not believe me. I thought about going to the police, but that would open up a can of worms and a case file. I just need to ask someone if they have….
Any suggestion?

A Glossary of Terms that are sometimes Confusing

Couples Therapy is a counseling procedure that seeks to improve the adjustment of two people who have created an interdependent relationship. There are no standard procedures to help two people improve their adjustments to each other. Generally, a more experienced therapist will offer more perspectives and tools to a couple. Length of treatment will depend on severity of problems, motivation and skills of the therapist. A couple can be dating, living together, married or separating and may be gay, lesbian or heterosexual.

Marriage Therapy is a term often used interchangeably with marriage counseling. The term marriage implies two people have created a union sanctioned by a government or religious institution. The methods used in marriage counseling, marriage therapy and couples therapy are interchangeable and depend more on the specific challenges of each unique couple.

Psychotherapy is one or more processes to help improve psychological and emotional functioning. Examples are psychoanalysis, cognitive therapy, behavior therapy, Gestalt therapy, Transactional Analysis, Rational-Emotive therapy, or group therapy. Many forms of psychotherapy are blends of different approaches. For example, newer forms of psychotherapy called energy psychology draw upon recent advances in brain and neuroscience. These approaches often build on cognitive behavioral methods.

Clinical Psychologist. After graduating from college, it usually takes about five years of graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Psycholgy. It then requires an additional two years of supervision and passing a written (and often) an oral exam. There are a few states that allow psychologists to prescribe medications (with additional training) but that is uncommon.

Psychiatrist. After graduation from medical school, there is a generally a 4-year psychiatric residency. After the completion of this training, psychiatrists must pass an exam issued by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to obtain certification and legally practice in the field. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications.

Clinical Social Worker. This profession usually requires two years of study after obtaining an undergraduate degree. While specific licensure requirements vary by state, most require clinical social workers to obtain 3,000 hours or 2 years of supervised clinical experience, after obtaining a Masters degree. Social workers can also specialize in diverse fields such as human services management, social welfare analysis, community organizing, social and community development, and social and political research.

Marriage and Family Therapist. Obtaining this license requires a Masters degree which takes approximately two years of post graduate study. The license also requires 3000 hours of supervised work and passing written exams.

The Couples Institute. We have assembled a group of top notch therapists at The Couples Institute. Whatever marriage help or marriage advice you are looking for, we are here to serve you. While most other therapists see only a few couples a week, we specialize in marriage and couples relationships, working to develop and bring you the most current and effective approaches to couples therapy. For more information about couples therapy or marriage counseling, see our couples therapy section.