The Passive-Aggressive Punch: The Silent Code of Anger In The Coupledom

Stalemated and Suffering: When The Coupledom (the domicile wherein the relationship resides) reaches a level of pain and powerlessness as a consequence of countless hurts and misunderstandings, a strange pall descends upon it.

Avenues of coping may have been explored: talking, arguing, even seeing a therapist. Perhaps to no avail/relief. Whatever the previous process, couples fall upon the passive-aggressive punch as the unfortunate methodology of choice and an anguished outlet for pain. This is a survival mechanism of sorts for humans, a Darwinian strategy in the psychological realm, to master daunting challenges with new behaviors. And ruptures in relationships qualify as very daunting challenges. However, amongst the many “survival” strategies, the passive-aggressive solution is clearly one of the very worst.

According to Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Daniel K. Hall-Flavin: “Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of expressing your negative feelings in an indirect way — instead of openly addressing them.” That succinct definition captures what is so poisonous about this “defense”, it’s  indirectness. Similar to some physical illnesses where much remains hidden, undiagnosable, while quietly wreaking havoc on the body, relationship disorders can be equally insidious. Only when the symptoms become unbearable might there be a move to  diagnose and treat the condition. By that time, someone may have moved out, had an affair, become medically ill or resumed using an addictive substance.

Withholding: A common form of passive-aggressive behavior is withholding: sex, affection, information, conversation. Someone in the Coupledom stops chatting, sharing details of family life; someone refrains from conveying essential data such as appointments, social events, school open houses, soccer games; someone “forgets” to share news about changes at work, relative illnesses……perhaps to create a fight, to let some of the pain ooze out; or to message “you don’t count, you don’t exist in my equation anymore, you show no interest in me, so why should I bring you into my world”. Revenge, retaliation, recalibration of emotions; but it doesn’t work because the true target, the painful rupture in the relationship, remains closeted.

Triangulating: Another highly toxic form of passive-aggressive behavior is triangulation, turning other family members, work colleagues or friends into “confidants” while leaving their partner in the dark. Born out of anger, hurt, or a history of failed attempts to be heard, the partner goes elsewhere to vent, to gain sympathy and perhaps to find approval and justification for their feelings.

A Harbor of Powerlessness: This clandestine yet fairly transparent strategy is futile at best, destructive at worse and often leads to more complicating liaisons or betrayals. Anyone who feeds this strategy becomes a co-conspirator, wittingly or unwittingly, and further damages the Coupledom. Perhaps flattered by feeling “important” or propelled by a healing instinct, the third-party provides a detour in the path towards recovery for the Coupledom.

Oh, The Games People Play! Ignoring text, email and phone messages, leaving tasks unfinished or never begun, lateness, innuendos and sarcasms;  all these tricky little devices that folks employ to convey, “hey, I don’t give a ……..how you feel, you hurt me!” are recklessly powerful and hideously provocative. The message is, we can’t talk, we don’t know how to translate these rotten feelings into words that will carry any weight, be heard or understood, so we will act……act-out in such a manner that no one can call us on it. Yet at the same time, the hope is that the partner will figure out the puzzle, “will get it and end this war”. These desperate measures reflect the fear that if hurt or anger is expressed, the partner will minimize their pain, flip it into “your” problem, or explode into flames of outrage.  A hateful combination of character assassination, humiliation, rejection or ugliness is anticipated, burying the option of honest dialogue under the rubble of subterranean communication, atmospheric shifts, false notes and big empty spaces.

Pride Goeth Before The Fall: Integrity, pride and  self-respect are attributes essential to our feeling of self-worth.  On a daily basis we are actively involved, either consciously or unconsciously, in keeping our self worth in working order. When our relationships disrupt this effort, we are activated to remedy the problem;  in essence, re-establish our psychological balance. The aim of restoring a healthy balance to our self respect vis a vis a relational disturbance while keeping our “pride” intact is where we run amuck.  We often confuse pride with vanity, vulnerability with humiliation, honesty of feeling with shame. In fact, the passive-aggressive strategy of communication is a perfect playground of pride gone array.

An Embargo On Affection: Few shipments of affection, respect or kindness can pass through these chilly waters during the passive-aggressive war. What does get through emotionally bludgeons the Coupledom, leaving scar tissue that over time will thicken with repeated assaults, no truce, and a relationship floundering on the shore.

Call A Truce: Someone speak, name the disorder, own your part and invite your partner to do the same. If there is anger, speak its name. If there is hurt, do the same. And if you need help, find an expert to team up with you to take the passive and the aggressive out of the relationship and bring back the love.

©jill edelman, M.S.W. , L.C.S.W, 2010

25 Responses to “The Passive-Aggressive Punch: The Silent Code of Anger In The Coupledom”

  1. Anne Carpender

    Oh, I lived this one. I couldn’t do it. The passive behavior became to hard to figure out or intercept. It almost ate me alive, I had to get away from the partner to survive.

    This was a spot on description.

    Thanks again for the affirmation.

    Reply
    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Dear Anne,

      I think you hit on another troubling feature of passive-aggressive behavior….it can be very confusing, denied by “perpetrator” and crazy making for the partner. Thanks for the feedback.

      Reply
  2. kathy

    great stuff Jill-I know you’re not ‘fishing’ for compliments-BUT i love how you worked floundering into this call for healing!
    Speak up people..so much can be resolved by talking ,instead of expecting loved ones to be mind readers

    Reply
  3. Kim Schneider

    Ready to call a truce. Digging deep for courage and strength.

    Reply
      • Kim Schneider

        Can identify with some (actually, just about all) of what you have written here. Eager to talk more about it – and learn how to change or cope with passive aggressive behavior. A little anxious of the changing/coping part!

        Reply
  4. Liz

    I have never felt close to my husband and always felt that there was something missing in our relationship emotionally. Every time I try talking to him he either walks away and refuses to discus the issues i bring up. It never seems to be his fault about anything and he always twists things round in a way so he can put the blame onto me, he has lied to my face and if I confront him about it he says i am the one that is lying. He never takes responsibility for anything he does wrong and if I manage to corner him into a situation that he cannot get out of he just explodes into a tantrum. I found out 3yrs ago that he had an obsession with porn. He is contracted away from home and tends to mix with not so very nice people. I was shocked and extremely hurt when I found out about this because he does work long hours and we very rarely had sex. I used to make excuses for him thinking he was just tired and stressed out and when i tried to talk to him and tell him it felt like he didn’t love me anymore and that i felt rejected he would tell me that he really loved me and he was just tired. I very nearly had a breakdown and it was only then that he said he didn’t realize what affect this had on me and never intended to hurt me and that it was just a man thing. I am at my wits end because he will not communicate properly at all. He never does if it is anything he has done wrong. When i try to talk to him he just explodes into a rage. Last time he did this he threw an ashtray and broke the mirror door on my wardrobe he never wants to sort anything out. Even when things get too emotional and we both agree to talk later when we are calm he never wants to resolve anything and avoids communication altogether. One time when he got really angry i had to call the police and as soon as they arrived he sat down calmly. I was left in an emotional state and he told the police that I had hidden his car keys and that i was the one that had problems communicating and controlling my temper. The police threatened to arrest me instead of him as i nearly lost it i was so frustrated and couldn’t believe that he would do such a thing but luckily i managed to calm myself down and not react like the crazy woman he was making me out to be. He ended up being escorted to a hotel for the night by the police.The following day when he returned home and had calmed down he found his car keys in a drawer and acused me of hiding them when he had put them there himself. we have recently split up I have tried to help him and asked him to seek professional help but he has refused and doesn’t seem to think he has a problem. Even now if I ask him to talk about anything he just says it is nothing to do with me anymore. I have explained to him that even though we are separated we have to consider our sons feelings and that we are still a family and need to try and build bridges and get along because we are both parents but he is so unemotionally disconnected it’s unbelievable. He has never really interacted with our son even when he came home at weekends from his work. He seems so selfish and such a ME person at times but yet if i ask him for anything financially he will always do his best to provide and be so nice. Emotionally though there is no chance for either of us.

    Reply
    • jilledelmanlcsw

      Dear Liz, You have shared much of your painful journey. I think that your offer to see someone with your husband so that the two of you can manage, as parents, to work together to help your son through this rough time, makes great sense. I am not sure what your husband is running from, nor do we hear his voice in any of this, except through you as someone who, for now, is not able to confront the difficulty his marriage is facing. I can imagine how heart breaking this is for you, as you have strived to reach out to him. If he can provide financially but not emotionally, hopefully he can give you some sense of security, even as he cannot be the husband or father that emotionally is needed. Good luck and thank you for commenting on my post.

      Reply
    • Grace

      Liz, I am sorry about what you’re going through. I understand. I have a husband who is passive aggressive. That said, I have to say that your significant other also sounds like a narcissist to me, though of course, he can be both. I found reading a book by a therapist named David Celani called, “The Illusion of Love” to be helpful at understanding borderlines/narcissists. It also explains why codependent’s are often attracted and stay with this type of person, which it sounds like you have issues with from reading your post. Trust me, you can waste your life trying to fix someone who is broken in ways you cannot fix. And not only will they not be fixed, you will be damaged in the process. If you understand that your former partner has a personality disorder and accept that you cannot change that, you will be much better off. I know you want what is best for your child, which is admirable, but what is best is for you to make them know that their father’s behavior isn’t their fault or about them. You need to protect them from loss of self esteem by educating them about personality disorders and filling them with self esteem. You also need to protect him from his father if he is violent. It is better to have no father, than let him create the same lifelong emotional problems for his child. Therefore the best thing you could do for your child is to become a pillar of self esteem and strength yourself, to create a great example for them and to know how to instill these traits in them. I also found that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is extremely helpful at accomplishing that, and you can learn the exercises yourself in a book called, “The Feeling Good Book”, by Dr. David Burns. Perhaps if you put the work in on yourself, you can detach from a toxic situation. It doesn’t mean you can’t pity that your ex is broken. All people who are broken have my sympathies. However, as they are toxic it is easy to get sucked into a toxic dance, where they act badly and you keep trying to change them and the situation. It is painful to let go, but much less so than to keep trying to change someone who has a personality disorder. As he has indicated to you that he has absolutely no interest in opening up or talking to a therapist, the problem is that you are not accepting that this is who he is and who he wants to be. You cannot make someone want to change. It will only keep you from getting what I assume you really want, which is a loving, supportive, empathetic, communicative, honest partner. The sooner you accept that your ex isn’t going to fulfill those needs, the sooner you can find the person that will. It will only cause you pain to hold on. Once you let go of trying to change them, you might find that it is freeing. In my case, it freed up lots of time that I had spent/wasted on trying to fix them. It freed up head space, energy, and time that could be focused on improving my life and to do things that would actually be fulfilling. I felt more in control of how my day to day life was going, as it wouldn’t be punctuated by unexpected drama. Once you stop trying to have someone else fill needs unmet in childhood and you take full responsibility for your life, you will more likely attract someone healthy too. Anyway, I learned all of this the hard way, and hopefully this helps you avoid more pain and heartache.

      Reply
      • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

        Grace, thank you for responding to Liz’ comment with so much knowledge and empathy. You have provided wonderful resources and suggestions for Liz and all others caught in a confusing relationship with multiple layers. I applaud your successful efforts in liberating yourself from the grip of the narcissist and swirl of manipulations and distortions characteristic of those relationships. I encourage others to educate themselves as you have done to expedite their release as well.

        Jill

        Reply
      • Karen Posey

        Grace, here I am, June 2017 searching for some truth about what I’ve been going through with my husband for 18 years. I’ve actually been wanting to die so the pain stops. Growing up I don’t remember ever being held by my father, nor a “I love you”, nothing but fear. I was married to a violent police officer for 26 years, then now my current husband 18 years who I believe has this disorder. It’s a Godsend to me to finally begin to identify why I feel I’m going insane. He has always withheld his affection, and won’t ever have a normal discussion and look at me. He looks away, stares into some abyss and won’t engage.
        I’ve begged him to show me affection, a hug, kiss on the cheek. Something to help me feel loved. If and when we have sex (NEVER has it been love making), he doesn’t start it and only gets on top to ejaculate. Now his anger is becoming evident. Yesterday we had an argument and he’s screaming at me calling me bitch and says he’s leaving me as soon as he can. Says I mistreat him and throws up the past. Everybody just loves my husband, he shows them a side he doesn’t show me behond closed doors. I had a triple bypass 1 year ago and am having such a hard time recovering because of all the
        stress in my life. I’m 61, people say I’m very pretty and look like I’m in my 40’s. But, I feel like I’m shriveling up, and my spirit is broken, and my face is swollen because of all the tears… after a lifetime of not feeling love. All I ever have done was love men that wouldn’t love me. Maybe it’s over for me. Maybe I was only to be loved by God. Instead of looking to the future with hope, I look forward to breathing my last breath. Thank you for what you wrote. I saved it so I can read over and over in hopes I’ll have enough love left for myself to move on alone. Thank you and God Bless you.

        Reply
        • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

          Dear Karen,
          I’m glad you found the information from Grace and on the blog useful.Shifting the pain of “rejection” to coming to terms with the fact that this individual can’t be loving will be a major step toward freedom from this constant pain. You’re important and caring for yourself, our self-respect and health, that’s where you need to place your energy.Not begging blood from a stone.

          Reply
  5. Bob

    I’ve been married to a PA for 30 years, looking back, the day we got engaged the relationship started to flounder. I tried everything, counseling book, frank discussions, nothing worked. Whenever I begged my parter to work on the relationship, they promised they would and then didn’t. . When I threatened to leave they cried and wailed and swore they would work on it. No affection, no emotion no touching. Sutble digs and misdirection to keep me off balance and emotionally dependent to the point where I felt like I had to ask permission to spend my own money. I see it all now, I’m so pissed. There’s no solution but getting out and away from the twisted torture. Most of the articles I see concerning passive aggressive relationships encourage the victims to keep trying. I’m urging you to get away ASAP and start living again.

    Reply
  6. Eleanor

    After 22 years we began the hard discussions that saved our P/A relationship. But first the anger and anxiety made me sick, then he was unfaithful and moved out. The searing, overwhelming pain following disclosure brought us both to our knees so we had to start talking. He never could understand the reason for my anger and assumed that it was because I didn’t want him, which was hard on his self-esteem. When I finally spat out the words, “because you’re selfish and do what you want without thinking about me” he smiled and finally understood (I tried before, nicely, but he never really got it). Now he’s an ideal husband and tries his best every day to please me and I am TOTALLY HAPPY at last.

    Reply
  7. Jenny

    This article is wonderfully and so accurately written. My passive aggressive husband filed for divorce back in August after an argumentthat we’ve been having since dating 9 years ago. He’s been withholding intimacy and sex for all of our time together. He doesn’t hold my hand, hug or kiss me and each time I wanted to become pregnant I’d have to beg him to be intimate. We now have 2 small children. He’s promised to”fix” this issue for a very long time and yet has done nothing to help us or himself. We live like roommates. It has become very treacherous trying to communicate with him. He will not move out rather creates tension in our home. He is 42 and got his father involved to come to our home one night to “put me in my place” because I’d threatened divorce. I’m sad that he couldn’t find it in himself to get some help but relieved not to deal with the immature behavior any longer.

    Reply
  8. susan

    At last I’ve found something to show people what I’m talking about when I’m trying to explain the way my husband is the way he is. Some people thought that I was picking on him or constantly putting him down. Neither of us really understood what was going on, but after reading some articles about Passive-Aggressive behaviour, it seems like we have finally begun to understand certain patterns of behaviour and why he sometimes seems completely uninterested or not willing to engage in conversation or activities. I felt very sad and very much alone. It seemed to be very confusing, and I felt very desperate at times. No one seemed to understand my story, or even my point of view. Sometimes I feel like I’m not important or even invisible during these times when my husband is emotionally distant or uninvolved. Hopefully by sharing this we might be able to get some closure.

    Thank you so much for your article. It has given us some answers and direction as to where we need to go next.

    Reply
    • Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

      Dear Susan,
      I’m so glad that my article and others have helped to organize and explain what can be a confusing and debilitating component of your relationship. Good luck to you and to your Coupledom.

      Reply
  9. Jill Edelman M.S.W., L.C.S.W

    Thank you Jenny for sharing your thoughts about my blog post. The paralzying and punishing effects of this kind of defense are well described in your note. The impact of this type of behavior on the partner can make them feel terribly confused and even guilty until they catch on and free themselves from its hold. Good luck.

    Reply
  10. Jenny

    Thanks Jill.
    This has been the most difficult relationship of my life. Trying to understand why someone would promise to make change and than wonder why I became so angry is beyond my comprehension. My tolerance wore out, we argued than one week later he filed. This man doesn’t know how to communicate unless he’s been drinking. It amazes me.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>