Passive aggression is indirect negativity. For example, if you have a passive-aggressive husband, he may make derogatory remarks instead openly expressing frustration or disagreement.

Anyone can be passive-aggressive, whether it’s your friend, co-worker, family member, or partner. Many people exhibit these behaviors at some time or another.

You may be able to distance yourself from excessively passive-aggressive people outside of your household. But when it’s your partner, passive-aggressive behavior has a bigger impact on your daily life.

If you live with a passive-aggressive spouse, they may exhibit certain signs, such as:

  • gaslighting, or trying to make you doubt yourself
  • lateness for times or schedules you set
  • procrastination on tasks you request
  • sabotage, such as saying unkind things about you to other people
  • avoidance, like changing the topic of conversation
  • refusing to communicate, such as the silent treatment, walking away, or zoning out
  • sarcasm or compliments paired with criticism
  • weaponized kindness, like complaining while helping others
  • weaponized incompetence to avoid unwanted responsibility

People who use passive aggression are often not comfortable approaching an unsatisfactory situation directly. Instead, they use passive-aggressive behaviors to communicate. They may also be compensating for low self-esteem or a feeling of not being in control.

Passive aggression in a marriage can have several unwanted effects.

It can undermine the communication that’s so important for making a relationship work.

Passive aggression from your partner can erode your self-esteem and damage the trust between you. It can cause or worsen conflict, and possibly lead to the end of your relationship.

Understanding the reasons behind your spouse’s passive-aggressive behavior can help you take it less personally.

Sometimes, people learn this behavior from their previous environments. For example, your spouse may have grown up in a home where household members used indirect criticism to communicate or control.

In some instances, passive aggression can also co-occur with mental health issues.

A 2022 study found that self-directed passive-aggressive behavior, like disregarding ones own needs, is part of the connection between the biased self-monitoring and pessimistic self-evaluation found in depressive symptoms.

Passive-aggressive behavior can also serve as a defense mechanism, according to a 2021 study.

The study listed several conditions associated with higher levels of passive aggression as a defense mechanism:

You may not be able to change your partner’s reason for using passive aggression, but there are ways you can diffuse its unwanted impact.

Stay calm

Passive aggression from your partner can be upsetting. It can be hard not to take it personally and react emotionally. If you get upset, the situation may escalate into an argument.

Remaining calm is one way to prevent further conflict. Strategies like calming breathing and reframing their behavior can help.

Reframe their behavior

Behavior from your spouse that seems like an attack toward you may instead reflect how they feel about themselves.

They might be experiencing:

Or they may simply find it too difficult to directly communicate their feelings.

Reframing their behavior from passive aggression to a sign of something they may be struggling with can make you feel less victimized.

Ask for clarification

Rather than trying to interpret what your partner is thinking or feeling, asking them about their passive-aggressive behavior reduces the chance of miscommunication.

Simply calling them out may add to the conflict. However, if you communicate your desire to understand, your conversation may be more productive.

Set boundaries

One way to set boundaries is to clearly state your feelings and expectations using non-confrontational language. Avoid ultimatums, and instead, ensure your spouse knows they have choices.

Setting boundaries can also mean creating a mental barrier for yourself so you don’t internalize your spouse’s passive aggressive behavior.

Ignore the bad and reward the good

Another strategy to try when responding to passive aggression is to avoid engaging in negativity. Conversely, when your spouse is communicating well and treating you with kindness, do the same in return.

Avoiding engagement in negativity doesn’t mean you’re being passive-aggressive yourself. Instead, you’re creating an immediate consequence by responding to the behavior you want to see more of, and ignoring the behavior you wish would stop.

Passive aggression is behavior that occurs when a person is uncomfortable directly communicating how they feel. It can also be a way for a person with low self-esteem to feel in control.

Passive aggression in a marriage can have significant unwanted effects and may even contribute to the end of the relationship.

You can react in ways that reduce the impact of passive aggression. Not taking it personally, staying calm, and asking your partner what they think and feel are all helpful responses.