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Passive Aggressive Behavior in Relationships (and How to Change It)

Not you, of course…maybe.

Do you have a passive aggressive person in your life? Even more importantly, do you think that passive aggressive person might be you?

Passive aggressive behavior can be seriously damaging to relationships, so if you’re acting this way, you should probably know about it.

According to Merriam Webster, the definition of passive aggressive as an adjective is, “Being, marked by, or displaying behavior characterized by the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an un-assertive passive way (as through procrastination and stubbornness).”

How Our Passive-Aggressive Ways End Up Destroying Our Relationships

When someone displays passive aggressive behavior, they tend to mask their anger or aggression in strange ways.

For examples, remember your annoying college roommate who seemed to be unnecessarily noisy every time you turned on the TV? What about that ex who would leave a roll of toilet paper just out of your reach the day after you left an empty roll on the holder by mistake?

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These are both examples of passive aggressive manipulation, and things like that happen all too often within relationships.

When passive aggressive people get angry, they let it out in ways that may not be obvious to others. They often appear to be going with the flow, but will procrastinate, sulk or give off other subtle signs that they’re secretly resentful.

Passive-aggressive people who feel angry might repeatedly claim that they are not mad, insisting they are “fine” — even when it’s pretty apparent they’re actually furious and not at all okay.

To make things even more confusing, not all passive aggressive people behave the same way.

Everyone expresses this behavior differently; showing it through microaggressions like avoiding eye contact, showing up late, missing important events, self-isolating, feigning depression, being short with their responses, or sending glaring looks your way.

Here are 13 examples of common types of passive aggressive behavior.

  1. Avoidance: Passive aggressive people will repeatedly avoid certain people as a way to express their dislike for them.
  2. Showing Up Late: They’ll consistently show up late for events or fail to show up completely, even though they said they’d come. This is a way for them to passively prove a point.
  3. Gossiping: They’ll take part in negative gossip about people they say they love or admire.
  4. Harsh Humor or Criticism: Their joking consists of sarcasm that can be extremely hurtful. They often make hostile comments but say they were just kidding.
  5. Self-Isolating: A passive aggressive person will sometimes ‘go missing.’ They’re really just cutting people off to make a point or in hopes that they’ll be missed.
  6. Giving the Silent Treatment: In order to make a point, they’ll stop talking to those who have ‘wronged’ them. They might stop answering your calls, ignore you at a party, or completely change their number.
  7. Making a Ton of Excuses: Passive aggressive behavior usually includes lots of excuses. They’ll give excuses for being late, not showing up, ignoring your calls, or acting rude.
  8. Blatantly Lying: A passive aggressive person will lie to your face instead of just saying “no” or telling you the truth.
  9. Chronic Procrastinating: If they don’t want to do something they agreed to, they’ll procrastinate rather than admit the truth.
  10. Unreasonable Blaming of Others: All of their problems are someone else’s fault. They don’t fess up to their own issues.
  11. Purposely Undermining the Work of Others: To passively make themselves feel better and others feel worse.
  12. Acting Like a Victim: Passive aggressive people act like the world is out to get them. Bad things keep happening to them and everything is out of their control.
  13. Being Rigid About Compromising: Passive aggressive people like things their way but they don’t want to come out and say it. Instead, when it’s time to compromise, they’ll passively act dissatisfied or rigid about the situation.

What Makes People Passive Aggressive?

Passive aggressive behavior can be the result of growing up in an environment where someone was discouraged from expressing personal feelings. People who feel they can’t express their real feelings openly will find ways to passively channel their anger or frustration. Some people may also engage in passive aggressive behavior if they are unable to deal with or manage conflict.

Passive aggression may not always stem from a negative place, but rather from hesitance to hurt the feelings of someone they care about.

Learning How to Side-Step Another’s Toxic Behavior

Asserting yourself isn’t always easy, and it can even be a little scary for some people. For them, passive-aggression might seem like an easier way to deal with their emotions without having to confront the source of their anger.

Now that you understand what passive aggressive behaviors are, you may have realized that you fit the bill.

If so, here’s how to stop behaving passive aggressively so you can build better relationships.

  1. Work On Your Self-Awareness: Now that you know what passive aggressive behaviors are, keep tabs on yourself and make sure you aren’t acting this way.
  2. Determine If You’re Acting Directly or Indirectly: Are you handling problems and emotions head-on? If not, make some changes.
  3. Recognize Your Own Passive Aggression: And make a point to change those behaviors immediately.
  4. Identify When the Behavior Is Most Likely to Occur: Does it happen around certain people? In certain situations? Try distancing yourself from those who make you angry or make you feel that you have to stifle your emotions.
  5. Keep Your Anger Under Control: Consider breathing exercises, reframing the situation in your mind, or even talking to a professional therapist.
  6. Express Your True Feelings: Be open about how you really feel. If you don’t want to do something, just say so. This way, you won’t keep bottling up your feelings.
  7. Don’t Play the Blame Game: Evaluate what’s going on in your life and how your own decisions played a role. What could you have done to change your situation?
  8. Own Your Feelings: Don’t pretend to be happy to appease others. If your roommate made you angry, just tell them (don’t hide the toilet paper or whatever other passive nonsense you thought up).
  9. Talk About Your Feelings: Tell the people in your life how you feel, whether good or bad. This will stop you from bottling it all up and harboring resentment. If they care about you, they’ll listen to what you have to say without judgment.
  10. Stop Procrastinating: Get yourself on a schedule and do what you say you’re going to do.
  11. Role Play: If you’re serious about squashing your passive aggressive behaviors, ask a friend to help you role play. Act out situations that would usually prompt passive behavior and practice acting in a more active way.

Passive-aggressive behavior can be destructive; however, we all respond in similar ways at times.

By understanding what causes passive aggressive behaviors and how to deal with them, you can minimize the potential damage to yourself and your relationships.

This guest article originally appeared on What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior — And Why Do People Behave Like That In Relationships?

Passive Aggressive Behavior in Relationships (and How to Change It)

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APA Reference
Guest Author, P. (2018). Passive Aggressive Behavior in Relationships (and How to Change It). Psych Central. Retrieved on October 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 20 Dec 2018 (Originally: 20 Dec 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Dec 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.