Relating to the Passive Aggressive Person







By Gordon Bals

    After 20 years of counseling and trying to help others reconcile with God and others there are clear themes I have begun to recognize that seem to really matter.  One such theme is how both people in a close relationship (whether spouses or friends) need to be assertive or self-confident at times to express themselves. When describing the potential of intimate relationships to change us the wise man said, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend,” (Proverbs 27:17).  Relationships hold the most potential for change when both people demonstrate strength at necessary junctures but “iron on iron” means knocking together and sparks flying.  You and I often want cotton balls to sharpen cotton balls because the discomfort necessary for good relationships is painful.  Instead of iron sharpening iron I often see relationships take the form where one person is all iron (typically called the codependent) and the other person is a cotton ball (typically called the passive aggressive).

    The passive aggressive person will withdraw or hide when difficulty emerges.  This person sees difficulty ahead and avoids it or shuts down.  Shutting down often prevents them from seeing how this negatively impacts the other person who might be more available to work through the difficulty.  The opposite response is to anxiously control the relationship (the codependent).  Such a person deals with their fear in relationships by trying to stay on top of problems and has a hard time relaxing in intimate relationships.  They are often ‘knocking into others’ and making waves and if confronted might respond by saying the other person is too sensitive.

    For this newsletter I want to focus on the passive aggressive person or the one that becomes a cotton ball when tension emerges.  A passive aggressive person is no less afraid or angry at difficult junctures they just respond consistently by withdrawing and push their emotion underground.  Their flight during conflict leaves the other person with the feeling that they must solve the problem.  If you are involved with a passive aggressive person you will often experience frustration like you have done something wrong to make the passive aggressive person withdraw.  However, the passive aggressive person chooses to depart in difficulty as a form of self-protection. Instead of being present and active through difficulty they abandon you emotionally or physically.  If this has become someone’s primary way of relating through obstacles they often are not in touch with the anger or resentment they feel.  It will come out later in aggression at a time when there is not tension between the two of you. Because they have consistently suppressed feelings that would propel them toward stronger involvement in relationships they lack insight into what they feel and believe.  Others misunderstand them or are just asking too much of them. 

Some of the behaviors a passive aggressive person demonstrates are:

  • Fear of trust:  Because the passive aggressive person has not externalized their feelings they don’t know themselves well and are unsure of what they have to give in relationships.  Their insecurity and inability to give and receive in intimate relationships means they often are not open in difficulty and have a deep fear of being left alone.  Unknowingly, they try to maneuver you into thinking you have the problem so you keep working on the relationship and do not abandon them.  A passive aggressive person usually ends up with a ‘giver’ in relationship.  A giver is someone more secure in giving and not receiving and is typically called a co-dependent. 
  • Lack of visible anger:  A passive aggressive person will rarely display anger in intimate relationships.  They may however express their anger over a political, social or idealistic cause that doesn’t threaten or enhance their relational world.  In general, they may seem happy with what they have because in formative years they learned relational disappointments were not acceptable and pushed them underground.  Unfortunately, suppressing displeasure means it usually comes out sideways in covert actions.  
  • Avoidance of responsibility/blaming:  The passive aggressive person’s insecurity means they run away from responsibility and blame if they are confronted with failure.  Only as you feel loved (most securely in Christ and then outwardly with other humans) can you begin to accept your frailty as a human.  Perfect (undeserved) love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first (1 John 4:18-19).  The passive aggressive person is in a bind.  Their insecurity keeps them accepting God’s unconditional or perfect love and because they are not opening up to God’s undeserved love they don’t develop the security to recognize their failure.  They passively maneuver a relationship away from their problems and keep others around them busily working. Because of their insecurity they rarely feel or take responsibility for anything and because they are not risking much in the relationship it looks like they are not doing anything wrong. This passive avoidance keeps them from becoming a responsible and culpable person in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.
  • Stalling/procrastination:  Do you want something from the passive aggressive person in your world?  You will most likely be waiting longer than you thought possible.  It is important that they don’t risk too much in relationship because then others will depend on them or look to them for more.  Thus, they make you feel like what you want is important to them (this keeps you connected) but then for one reason or another they don’t really come through for you or simply forget what it is they promised or where supposed to do (they couldn’t really please you because you might start depending on them and they don’t feel secure enough to be dependable). 
  • Relational withholding:  They are afraid to clearly communicate what they want or to make decisions and often communicate if you really loved them you would know what they wanted.  They tend to withhold information about themselves and it is often because they are really not in touch with what they want or feel.  This creates difficulty because they are often paired with a co-dependent who is frantically demanding for some sign of involvement from the passive aggressive person.  The more the passive aggressive withholds the more the co-dependent demands. 

    There are several ways to relate with a passive aggressive person to move toward a healthier relationship.  The passive aggressive person will often genuinely enjoy the fun, every day part of intimate relating.  The hard part for them is when difficulty arises and they have to offer the part of themselves that has been suppressed.  When the relationship needs to move through the waters of conflict in such a way that feelings must surface and exposure of motives or sin must happen the passive aggressive person quickly becomes a turtle hiding inside their shell. 

Therefore it is wise to:

  • Aim toward building discussion that invites discovery for both of you:  It will be easy to be frustrated with the way a passive aggressive person relates and you will often feel pulled to attack their character.  Doing this will push the relationship away from redemption.  The passive aggressive person is often more aware of the relational dynamics than you realize but is afraid to discuss them.  They need growing safety to process and express what they feel and understand.  Because the person in relationship with the passive aggressive person is often more outwardly expressive of feelings and thoughts it seems to them they know more and are working harder at the relationship than the passive aggressive person.  Good relationship involves more than being able to work through conflict.  It involves times of relaxed friendship, forgiveness and overlooking sins and wrongs.  The passive aggressive can do this part of the relationship and often feels as if they are always doing this because they don’t express as much.  The passive aggressive person needs to accept their sins of omission (they don’t risk involvement) while the codependent person needs to recognize their sins of commission (they demand too much).  To create an atmosphere of mutual discovery codependent people must become more patient while passive aggressive people must outwardly risk rejection by offering more of themselves in the relationship. 
  •  Learn how to hold onto your sense of things when the passive aggressive person turns the tables on you: When trying to talk with a passive aggressive person about their lack of involvement and/or risk in the relationship they will often not be able to validate what you experience and you will feel crazy for your desire to have an adult conversation about your feelings.  Fight getting defensive about what you feel or trying harder to restate or explain what you said the first time.  Simply ask the passive aggressive person if they understand what you are saying.  Don’t try to make them accept it, agree with it or take responsibility for it because that will derail the conversation.  If instead they hear you and they leave remembering what you said in a less defensive posture it can have long-term impact.   
  • Don’t try to cover too much in one conversation:  The codependent person tries to solve all the problems because they have a hard time leaving things open or undone.  This means once one door is closed they want to quickly close all the other doors.  Solving one relational difficulty motivates the codependent toward solving more.  However, uncovering unseen or unacknowledged feelings or behaviors is work for the passive aggressive person and not stimulating.  If progress is made they will feel relieved and not want to talk about multiple issues in one conversation. If the passive aggressive person needs to step away from the conversation honor this request and accept that the conversation will not seem finished to you.  
  • Learn to accept changed behavior as verbal acknowledgement:  The codependent person wants things out in the open and wants to verbally agree on new directions in the relationship.  This will not be as easy for the passive aggressive person.  They will often demonstrate their agreement with what was spoken in a conversation by a difference in behavior later on after the conversation.  They don’t need to verbally agree upon new directions in the relationship and are more comfortable with ambiguity. Therefore, when relating to the passive aggressive person it is important to recognize that their change in behavior (even when small) is agreement with what was discussed.  Accept the change and don’t demand that it be agreed upon verbally. 

    It is so easy to get lost in intimate relationships.  It is helpful to pause and consider the type of person you are relating to and what is the most helpful (not reactive) way to nurture growth in the relationship.  Hopefully, for those of you who are in relationships that involve some of the themes discussed these reminders will help you to move toward something better.

Love is a sacrifice for the undeserving that opens the door to restoration of relationship with the Father, with others, and with ourselves.  It is in the light of Christ’s sacrificial, intentional and transforming love that we are to define love.  ~Dan Allender

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