What does passive aggressive behavior mean in a marriage?
Dealing with passive aggressive behavior requires an understanding of what this type of behavior is. In a marriage, passive aggressive behavior occurs when someone is passively, rather than directly, aggressive toward their spouse.
Instead of arguing or fighting back when their spouse disagrees or makes a request, passive aggressive spouses may procrastinate when asked to do a chore.
They hold their emotions when they are angry or upset or show up late to events important to you to show their dislike for these events.
When passive aggressive behaviors all have in common, they are indirect ways of expressing anger or frustration instead of tackling the issue head-on.
There are several potential causes of passive aggressive personality traits. Consider the following explanations for what causes passive aggressive behavior:
1. Childhood relationships
Passive aggressive spouses may have grown up with controlling or authoritarian parents who did not allow them to express their opinions or frustrations openly.
This can lead to an adult who is passive in relationships and expresses disagreement through indirect methods, such as by quietly refusing to follow through with requests, by putting them off until the last minute, instead of directly expressing that they do not wish to complete the task.
Similarly to behavior that develops through childhood relationships, someone may become a passive aggressive spouse if parents or other adults taught them that it was inappropriate to express intense emotions or anger.
A child punished for showing strong emotions or invalidated when expressing feelings may learn to repress these feelings.
A child can also learn to show passive aggressive personality traits by observing adults who behave in a passive aggressive fashion.
To know more about how childhood affects your relationships watch this video:
3. Perceived weaknesses
A person may become passive aggressive if they perceive themselves as being weak or inferior.
For instance, someone who was bullied as a child or faced discrimination because of being part of a minority group.
For example, being a member of an ethnic/racial minority or being part of the LBGTQ+ population may feel that they have no voice, so instead of being assertive and actively expressing their emotions or frustrations, they may revert to passive aggressive behaviors.
Examples of passive aggressive behavior within a marriage
Beyond the signs of a passive aggressive spouse, some specific examples of behavior answer the question, “What is passive aggressive behavior?”
Consider the following scenarios.
1. Ignoring everyday chores
Some people intentionally ignore their everyday chores and don’t respond to time-sensitive activities.
They might tell you that they will take care of the thing, but they will show a lack of interest and end up either forgetting or not completing the task at hand.
Being a passive-aggressive person, your partner might now show interest in communicating with you or engaging in any of the chores that might help you.
It means they have negative feelings in their heart, and they are letting their frustration out in their own way.
You’ve reminded your spouse that tomorrow is trash day, and it is their turn to take the trash out to the curb.
Your partner is irritated and feels nagged, but instead of responding with anger, he or she agrees to take out the garbage and assures you they will take care of it. You wait and wait, and next thing you know, it is bedtime, and the trash still isn’t taken out.
This is a prime example of passive aggressive behavior. Instead of directly refusing to take out the trash, the passive aggressive spouse is punishing you by procrastinating.
2. Avoiding communication and skipping events
Suppose your partner feels emotionally disconnected from you and refuses to participate in a conversation. In that case, they might hold you responsible for their frustration and have decided to stop expressing their feelings.
Your partner might tell you they don’t have a problem with spending time with you, but they will slowly cut off their time with you with all that negativity inside.
As a result of passive-aggressive behavior, they will stop going out with you, eating food together, attending an event, etc.
Something has upset your spouse, and you are sure of it because they just don’t seem like themselves. They have been quiet and appear visibly upset.
When you ask what is wrong, your spouse says, “I’m fine,” and refuses to discuss the issue. Despite claiming to be okay, your spouse continues to sulk, ignore you, or mosey around the house, appearing downtrodden.
Finally, you might have experienced instances when it is time to go to a party or event that your spouse isn’t too excited to attend.
Your spouse is aware it is time to leave the house, but they may wait until the last minute to jump in the shower to get ready. They may seem to get ready as slowly as possible or decide to take a phone call for work or respond to an email when you are trying to run out the door.
This passive aggressive behavior communicates that your spouse does not want to leave the house with you. Still, instead of directly stating this or expressing anger, they are indirectly punishing you through their passive aggressive actions.
It would be helpful if you knew how to deal with a passive aggressive spouse.
10 Ways of dealing with passive aggressive spouse behavior
Passive aggressive behavior can be frustrating for the other spouse because there is a disconnect between the passive aggressive spouse’s words and behavior.
They may say they are okay but appear upset or state they will help you with a task but fail to follow through. This can cause you to become anxious and frustrated.
It is natural to feel upset when you’re experiencing passive aggressive compliments or a passive aggressive personality disorder in marriage, but there are ways to cope.
Consider these 10 ways of how to deal with passive aggressive spouses:
1. Remain assertive yourself
If your spouse claims to be fine but appears angry, you might state, “It seems to me that my request for help with the dishes has made you angry.”
2. Do not judge your partner, but stick to the facts
When you decide how to respond to passive aggressive behavior, it is important to avoid criticizing your spouse or passing negative judgment upon them. Instead, state the facts of what has occurred.
For example, suppose your spouse agreed to go to a doctor’s appointment with you but is procrastinating when it is time to leave the house.
In that case, you might state, “I reminded you that we needed to leave at 10 o’clock, and it is now a few minutes after 10, and you’ve decided to check your email instead of getting prepared to leave.”
3. Respond rather than react
It is natural to respond with anger when a spouse displays passive aggressive behavior, but this is not the best way to cope.
Take a moment to pause and take a deep breath instead of lashing out at your partner since this will only escalate the conflict.
4. Be clear about your requests
If you ask passive aggressive spouses to complete a task but do not give a precise time frame, they can engage in passive aggressive behavior.
For example, if you ask your husband to call a repairman to fix the water heater but do not tell him when, he can respond with passive aggressive statements, such as, “You never told me you wanted that done today!”
You can avoid this by stating, “The water heater has not been working, and the water in the shower has been ice cold. It would be helpful if you could call an emergency repairman by the end of the day, so we don’t have cold showers again tomorrow.”
5. Get to the bottom of the behavior
As previously stated, there are several potential answers to, “What causes passive aggressive behavior?”
If you are experiencing this type of behavior in your marriage, it is helpful to get to the root cause. You might find that your spouse isn’t comfortable expressing emotions or that they were punished for showing anger as a child.
If this is the case, understanding where the behavior comes from can help you understand your spouse and be less likely to respond with anger.
6. Ask your partner for solutions
If your spouse’s behavior occurs in the form of intentionally procrastinating, for example, you might state, “I’ve noticed that we are always late when we have somewhere important to go.
How do you think we might get better at being on time?” This shows your spouse that you recognize the problem, but instead of being angry or confrontational, you invite your spouse to work with you toward a solution.
7. Communicate clearly
If you never clearly address your spouse’s passive aggressive behavior, they will realize they can get away with acting like this, and the behavior will continue.
When your spouse gives you the silent treatment or procrastinates on getting an important task done, clearly tell them that you feel rejected or unimportant when they act this way.
8. Ask them how they’re feeling
Passive aggressive spouses often are not comfortable expressing strong feelings like anger or resentment.
When you notice signs of passive aggressive behavior, take time to ask what is going on.
You might say, “I notice that you have been silent all day. I am wondering how you are feeling right now?”
9. Consider the DESC method for assertive communication
DESC stands for describe, express, specify, and consequences, and it is a method of assertively communicating your needs without being aggressive or judgmental.
When your spouse demonstrates passive aggressive behavior, describe it. For example, “You have still not taken out the trash, which you agreed to do, and it’s nearly 10 p.m.”
Next, express your feelings: “When you procrastinate doing something I’ve asked you to do, it makes me feel like you don’t care about helping me.” Then, move on to specifying what you’d like.
You might say, “When I ask you to do a task, it would be helpful to me if you could prioritize it before the very last minute.”
Finally, state a consequence, such as, “If you are not able to help out when I ask, I am afraid we might not get along.”
10. Turn to a professional
Ultimately, if you have tried the above strategies of how to deal with a passive aggressive spouse and the situation has not improved, it might be time to seek out professional help from a counselor or therapist.
Marriage counseling offers a safe space for you to obtain guidance from a neutral party who is trained in helping couples to manage conflict and communication issues.
A therapist can also help passive-aggressive spouses to address any underlying problems that have led to their behavior.
Passive-aggressive spouses may give silent treatment, sulk, intentionally procrastinate, or miss deadlines to punish their spouses or demonstrate their disagreement with their spouse’s requests instead of being directly aggressive or confrontational.
This behavior can be frustrating for the other spouse since it can be confusing and anxiety-provoking. Fortunately, there are strategies on how to deal with a passive-aggressive spouse.
You might consider implementing some of these strategies today. If they are not successful, marriage counseling is an effective method for improving communication between you and your partner.
If you feel disconnected or frustrated about the state of your marriage but want to avoid separation and/or divorce, the marriage.com course meant for married couples is an excellent resource to help you overcome the most challenging aspects of being married.
Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker with a master's degree in social work from The Ohio State University, and she is in the process of completing her dissertation for a Doctorate of Philosophy in Psychology. She has worked in the social work field for 8 years and is currently a professor at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. She writes website content about mental health, addiction, and fitness.
Licensed as both a social worker through Ohio Board of Counselors, Social Workers, and Marriage/Family Therapists and school social worker through Ohio Department of Education as well as a personal trainer through American Council on Exercise.