How does a person get to be passive-aggressive?

Certainly we are taught from an early age not to express out anger, but this hardly explains the severity of the problem in some people. Most passive-aggressive people experience a conflict over dependency. Rather than going through the normal developmental sequence in childhood of separating from one’s parents and then forming one’s own identity with encouragement and support from parents, the passive-aggressive person has formed a dependent relationship with a parent who has never really supported the child’s need to grow and experience life independently.

The child continues to cling to the parent for support which is never really forthcoming and is simultaneously angry when the support for independence is never as consistent as it should be. When the child tries to express anger, it is never validated. So he or she learns to hold in overt expressions of anger for fear of damaging the dependent relationship with the parent. At the same time, the person learns ways of staying in control and experiencing some measure of independence by expressing anger passively.

And what better way to get back at another person than by being late for an appointment, or never completing a promised project, or pouting and never saying what the problem is, or encouraging another person’s need for closeness and intimacy and then never coming through? These patterns are learned in childhood and then carried through to relationships in adulthood.

Ultimately passive-aggressive people are both afraid of being alone and unable to achieve full independence as an adult. And that is the conflict: They want dependence and they fear dependence; they want independence and they fear independence. A passive-aggressive partner fights dependence by trying to have control over you.

They are out of touch with their feelings and lack the tools for appropriately expressing emotions. They are guarded and feel fragile emotionally. To let you into their world of feelings seems like a dangerous thing to them, so you are always kept at a distance, never to be trusted. Privately they feel inadequate. They either feel that other people are controlling them or they have to be in control of other people, one or the other.

Any relationship involves two people, and both are responsible for its success. How does one get involved in a relationship with a passive-aggressive person in the first place, usually without realizing it? The passive-aggressive person can appear to be very attractive at first. After all, he or she is able to contain anger, appears to be strong and capable on the surface, is loyal, and can read your needs very well.

When the passive-aggressive behavior becomes a problem, you may even think about leaving the relationship, but you are always drawn back in again (after all, passive-aggressive person, having never achieved full independence as an adult, ultimately fears being alone… ad is very good at making sure the relationship continues). When you get blamed for things, it may strike a right-sounding note if you struggle with your own guilt issues or have problems with your self-image. You may even have a need to take care of another person who struggles with his or her own problems, and this is a perfect situation for the passive-aggressive individual who needs to form a dependent attachment to someone.

It is even possible that you had a passive-aggressive parent or sibling so that finding a partner with this pattern may seem like an easy transition, something you know well and are good at. If you are in a relationship with a passive aggressive person, it is easy to complain at length about his or her behavior, but you need to examine your part in the situation. What have you done to perpetuate the problem and what can you do to make things better?

Passive-aggressive relationships are difficult to deal with, but help is available and change is possible. When you start to make the necessary changes in your relationship, the passive aggressive partner may fight you even more. But if you set firm limits and respect yourself, the situation is likely to change for the better. There may not be a complete transformation, but your relationship can be much better. You are invited to make an appointment and start the process.

Baya Mebarek, Psy.D., LMFT