Many 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:
- Try to create negotiated agreements about who will do what by when.
- Ask the passive-aggressive partner to become more accountable.
- Keep giving insights about how the couple’s system is functioning.
- Increase your level of empathy about how frustrated they each feel.
- 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.
- Please comment below by describing any other difficult situations you experience where your momentum got lost.
- 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.