Home » Blog » How to Spot and Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior

How to Spot and Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior


Don’t let it drive you crazy!

What does “passive-aggressive” REALLY mean? And why is it so hard to identify passive-aggressive behavior in co-workers and partners?

People who have passive-aggressive traits suppress their angry responses because they fear conflict, and the anger comes out in other, more passive ways.

8 Brutally Honest Marriage Truths I Learned From My Therapist

For example, instead of having an argument that might risk the end of her relationship, Mary accidentally launders her husband’s white shirts with her red dress so they all come out pink.

Or maybe Jeff is furious with his boss, but instead of standing up to him, he forgets to mail the bills, and the business gets a bunch of late fees.

Check out YourTango for relationship advice

Because we are often unaware we are being passive-aggressive, it is difficult to stop behaving this way — even when we hate the results.

We are passive-aggressive when we express our anger or hostility indirectly.

A cycle then develops like this:

Anger bubbling under the surface leads to issues not being addressed leads to more and more indirect expression of our feelings.

When confronted about our behavior, we deny any anger or simply say dismissively ‘OK you are right’.

The core of passive-aggression is spiteful or sullen co-operation.

The person partially does what is expected of him but being full of resentment, he doesn’t do it fully or well.

It’s difficult to identify passive-aggressive behavior in others because we often dismiss our instincts. We like to give people the benefit of the doubt or think positively.

So, when someone we are connected with breaks a promise, is always late or never follows through, we make excuses for them.

Here are the common red flag signs of passive-aggressive behavior:

  • Procrastination: Nothing is ever begun immediately or finished on time.
  • Sulking.
  • The Silent Treatment: They simply stop talking to you. It is a silence that is pregnant with rage.
  • Doing tasks or completing requests poorly. Jobs are half done, and if you comment there is always an excuse.
  • Shutting down conversations; sometimes with ‘Fine’ or ‘Whatever,’ other times with ‘Ok you’re right’ (but then not changing any behavior or complying with the request).
  • Lots of excuses and nothing is ever their fault.
  • Perpetual lateness.

This type of behavior is insidious.

It makes the person who is not passive-aggressive crazy. They will question whether they are being unfair.

It’s possible John really forgot to pick up my dry cleaning for the fifth time the day before that important presentation at work.

Maybe they are being unreasonable expecting Margaret to be on time when she lives 30 minutes away. Gareth probably didn’t lose the keys on purpose so that we missed the plane and then missed mother’s party that he didn’t want to attend in the first place.

This cycle eats into the fabric of the relationship, undermining any positive feelings and undermining trust.

Here are my top 10 ways to stop this poisonous cycle and start healing your relationship:

1. Recognize the Passive-Aggressive Behavior as Quickly as You Can.

One of the most poisonous aspects of passive-aggressive behavior is the person who is not being passive-aggressive becomes overwhelmed by strong emotions.

This results in them feeling exhausted before they even realize that there is a passive-aggressive dynamic at play.

2. Make Clear Agreements with Your Partner.

Clear agreements mean everyone knows what is expected of them.

3. Notice Your Own Anger.

Often the person who is being passive-aggressive wants the other person to get angry, yell and scream as then that person will be identified as being the problem.

This is so they can avoid expressing their own anger and frustration or because they don’t want to have the conflict.

Do what you can to diffuse your anger and step back from the cycle. It takes two people to play this game.

If you refuse to play, something will have to change.

4. Be Assertive, not Aggressive, and State Things as Clearly as Possible.

State facts and be clear about your opinions.

Let the person know the impact of her behavior on you in clear statements.

5. Be Clear about Requests and Expectations and Make Sure That You Get Clear Agreements.

If you are asking someone to do something, make sure you are clear about the time frame.

If there is a specific way you want something done, make sure you tell the person. Be clear about the consequences for not meeting expectations.

6. Know Your Own Boundaries and State Them Explicitly.

This will stop you from enabling this cycle by either taking responsibility because you can no longer wait or by engaging in another endless row.

Why Passive-Aggressively Hating Your Ex Seriously Hurts Your Kids

7. Take Responsibility for the Things That are Yours and Reject the Rest.

Own the things that are your fault and own your piece in the issues that are joint.

Apologize for these and change your behavior. Apologies are only worth something if you don’t continue to repeat the same behavior.

Don’t be pressured into accepting responsibility for everything — and that includes responsibility for fixing everything.

8. Don’t Accept the Forgetfulness Excuse.

Be clear about the things that are important to you and make it easy for your partner to remember.

9. If You are the Passive-Aggressive Person, Work on Being Aware of Your Own Anger and Expressing It Directly.

Do not say yes to your partner and then do things your own way or do what you want.

10. Agree for Both of You to Be Responsible for Initiating Activities, Chores, Conversations, and Sex in Your Relationship.

Take the time to write these agreements down and be detailed and specific.

This cycle is a difficult one to deal with.

But remember, passive-aggression is often not a conscious behavior choice.

People who tend to react in this way are often unaware of their resentment and their anger.

They often say things like ‘I’m just forgetful’ or ‘I didn’t do that on purpose’ or ‘I’ve always been late. It’s cultural’.

They are unaware of the impact of their behavior on others and can be hypersensitive to criticism.

If you have been trying to deal with this and find you are not getting anywhere, a relationship therapist or an intimacy coach can be very helpful.

This guest article originally appeared on How To Know When Your Partner Is Being Passive-Aggressive (And How To STOP It).

How to Spot and Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior

5 comments: View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Guest Author, P. (2018). How to Spot and Stop Passive-Aggressive Behavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 4 May 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.