Help! My Partner Must Be Passive Aggressive!

In our last newsletter I mentioned why a passive aggressive person is so hard to live with and the major cause of this frustrating behavior: they break agreements without warning and have quicker excuses than a four year old caught with a hand in the cookie jar.

The passive aggressive person will break agreements and then lament they can't live up to the exacting standards of their partner. The passive aggressive person will often try to make others' unreasonable standards, rather than their unreliability, the focus of the problem. The spouse is caught in a bind. If they keep bringing up broken agreements, they are constantly nagging. But if they don't, they are condoning irresponsibility. It's no-win dilemma for the spouse.

It takes two to break this pattern. So it's best if you both understand not only your partner's contribution to the problem, but yours as well.

Partners of passive aggressive people share a common trait–a strong tendency to over-function. You feel a sense of responsibility where your partner is often oblivious.

But it doesn't stop there. This feeling of responsibility pervades your life. You're drawn to responsibility like iron filings to a magnet.

Your approach to life makes you a hard worker, responsible volunteer, and an admirable contributor to society. At home you take charge. But it's a huge personal detriment that results in physical and/or emotional depletion. As you begin to run on fumes you become more furious at your passive aggressive partner for being unreliable and insensitive.

With a little encouragement, you might admit to over-functioning and then quickly add, “But I have to do it this way because I can't depend on my partner.”

Now here's the hard's important for you to (gulp–this will be difficult) pull back from being so conscientious and do a better job of self care. You have probably been trained since childhood to take on responsibility beyond your age. Doing so has meant neglecting important aspects of your own interests or desires.

Self care means more than bubble bath and ice cream. It means talking to your partner about not only the standards you impose on them but the demanding ones you place on yourself. Ironically your partner can help you with this. They are aware of how you drive yourself. They've noticed the never-ending “to do” list you try to complete before you can relax.

If you think you can't possibly let up at home, ask your partner and family if they think that you and they might be better off if you chilled out a little more. I think you'll find that the rest of the family will want to support you in this endeavor.

The solution is simultaneously obvious and difficult–it's important for you, the passive aggressive person, to promise less and deliver more. Ironically, you probably want to want to please your partner. It's difficult to say “no” to them. I bet you don't like the expression of disappointment on your partner's face. So you agree and hope somehow you can deliver.

It's about integrity. Trust is the foundation for a relationship that grows. The fastest way to rebuild trust is to deliver more than promised. The way to do that is to tolerate the disappointed reaction and then deliver like crazy.

Here's something else that will help a lot. Take some initiative. Do more than deliver on your promises. Your partner has trouble being taken care of and relaxing. Think of ways to take a load off them, come up with ideas to nurture them, think of things you can do that will make them feel loved, valued and appreciated.

If you come up with a really short list, then take that as clue – you're being clueless. Put some good energy into figuring this out. As a last resort–ask your partner for suggestions. And then do them! And don't get discouraged when your initiatives are met with reluctance. It's going to take a while for your partner to get accustomed to being nurtured.

1) Give your partner lots of strokes for delivering on their promises. Tell them what it means to you when they do it. Most passive aggressive people grew up in an environment where they were deprived of positive strokes. Your expressions of appreciation will help more than you know.

Yes, I imagine a part of you is asking, “Why should I have to give appreciation when they are just doing what they should be doing in the first place?” Or “Why should I give them compliments for being a grown up? They should have learned this long ago.”

Well, you're going to do this because it will give you relief sooner by helping them change faster.

2) When you ask your partner to do something, you might want to tell them what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. Pick any two. If you tell them all three, you rob your partner of any initiative or creativity. You then get accused of micromanaging and the bossy rebellious pattern gets activated again.

For more help with passive aggressive behavior, visit our website where you can purchase the audio workshop “My Passive Aggressive Partner is Driving Me Nuts!” This workshop shows how to recognize core passive-aggressive characteristics, how to understand the origins of passive-aggressive behavior and how to help you and your partner set positive goals. Learn more about Passive Aggressive Behavior.

Working as a team, you will create a better relationship and a better individual life.

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I would dearly love to know if there’s any hope if the passive aggressive spouse has little interest in changing. What is the over-functioning spouse supposed to do? What are some concrete steps they can take (completely solo!) to help the situation?

I'm exhausted too
I'm exhausted too

I’m with Exhausted.
I’m about done and I can’t fix both of us.


Im with exhausted and company. I’m beyond exhausted. I’m tired and ready to leave


What do you do when the one person thinks the other person is passive aggressive but the person that keeps on calling the person passive aggressive is the one that is a hypocrite or Beyond controlling maybe the person who is said to be passive aggressive just doesn’t care anymore and doesn’t want to start a fight so they just do whatever it is that needs to be done and if they breathe just a little bit wrong the other person starts complaining


I don’t think this is very helpful to those whose partner uses passive aggression as an abusive tactic. Placing blame on the other partner as a contributing “cause” is misleading as well. Surely more could be said, or at least said differently. For instance, not every passive aggressive person is that way from high standards being imposed on them. If an abuser read this, it would not bode well for the partner, just sayin.

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader 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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