Santa Monica Counseling, Therapist in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and Culver City, CA, California - Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT

Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Partner

angry smilePassive-aggressive people act passive, but express aggression covertly. They’re basically obstructionist, and try to block whatever it is you want. Their unconscious anger gets transferred onto you, and you become frustrated and furious. Your fury is theirs, while they may calmly ask, “Why are you getting so angry?” and blame you for the anger they’re provoking.

Passive-aggressive partners are generally codependent, and like codependents, suffer from shame and low self-esteem. Their behavior is designed to please to appease and counter to control. You may be experiencing abuse, but not realize it, because their strategy of expressing hostility is covert and manipulative, leading to conflict and intimacy problems.

Personality Disorder

Personality disorders are persistent and enduring. According to the American Psychological Association passive-aggression was considered a personality disorder in the DSM-IV:

This behavior commonly reflects hostility which the individual feels he dare not express openly. Often the behavior is one expression of the patient’s resentment at failing to find gratification in a relationship with an individual or institution upon which he is over-dependent. (APA, 1968, p. 44, code 301.81)

The DSM-IV ascribed the disorder to someone with negative attitudes and passive resistance to requests for adequate performance, indicated by at least 4 of these traits not due to depression:

• Passively resists fulfilling routine tasks

• Complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated

• Is sullen and argumentative

• Scorns and criticizes authority

• Expresses envy and resentment toward those seeming more fortunate

• Frequently makes exaggerated complaints of misfortune

• Shows alternating hostile defiance and contrition

After nearly 40 years it was dropped in 1994. There’s renewed interest in studying passive-aggression. See a 2009 study. Passive-aggression was found to be related to borderline and narcissistic personality disorders, negative childhood experiences, and substance abuse.

Characteristics of Passive-Aggression

Because you can’t have an honest, direct conversation with a passive-aggressive partner, nothing ever gets resolved. They say yes, and then their behavior screams NO. They try to sabotage your wants, needs, and plans using a variety of tactics. We all engage in some of these behaviors some of the time, but when there’s a pervasive pattern of multiple symptoms, it’s likely that you’re dealing with passive-aggression.

Denial: Like all codependents, they’re in denial of the impact of their behavior. This is why they blame others, unaware of the problems they’re causing. They refuse to take responsibility for anything, and distort reality, rationalize, blame, make excuses, minimize, deny, or flat out lie about their behavior or the promises or agreements they’ve made.

Forgetting: Rather than say no or address their anger, they forget your birthday or the plans you’ve discussed, or forget to put gas in the car, pickup your prescription, or fix the leaky toilet. You end up feeling hurt and angry.

Procrastinating: They’re avoidant and don’t like schedules or deadlines. It’s another form of rebellion, so they delay and delay with endless excuses. They don’t follow through on responsibilities, promises, or agreements. If they’re unemployed, they drag their feet looking for work. You may do more job-searching on their behalf than they do.

Obstructing: This is another nonverbal form of saying NO. When you try to decide on where or when to go on vacation, pick out an apartment, or make plans, they find fault with each suggestion and won’t offer any of their own.

Ambiguity: They hate to take a stand. They don’t say what they want or mean. However, their behavior tells the truth, which is usually NO. This way they retain control and blame you for being controlling. As you might expect, negotiating agreements, such as in a divorce or child visitation plan, is exasperating. In addition to procrastinating, they avoid being pinned down. They may insist on “reasonable visitation,” and label your attempts to specify a predictable plan as controlling. Don’t be fooled. This only postpones negotiation when repetitive arguments can occur over every exchange of the children. Alternatively, they might agree to terms, but not abide by them. You can expect to be back in court.

Never angry: They don’t express their anger openly. In childhood, they may have been punished or scolded for showing anger, or were never permitted to object. Their only outlet is passive-aggressive, oppositional behavior.

Incompetency: When they finally do what you ask, you likely have to redo it. If they make a repair, it might not last or you’ll have to clean the mess they made. If they’re helping with house cleaning, their inefficiency may drive you to do it yourself. At work, they make careless errors.

Lateness: Chronic lateness is a half-hearted way of saying NO. They agree to a time, but show up late. You’re dressed-up, waiting to go out, and they’re “stuck at the office,” on the Internet, or watching the game and not ready. Lateness at work or delivering assignments is a self-sabotaging form of rebellion that can get them dismissed.

Negativity: Their personality may include pouting or acting sullen, stubborn, or argumentative. They feel misunderstood and unappreciated and scorn and criticize authority. They frequently complain and envy and resent those more fortunate.

Playing the Victim: The problem is always someone else’s fault. Their denial, shame, and lack of responsibility cause them to play the victim and blame others. You or their boss become the controlling, demanding one. They always have an excuse, but it’s their own self-destructive behaviors that cause them problems.

Dependency: While fearing domination, they’re dependent, nonassertive, indecisive, and unsure of themselves. They’re unaware of their dependency and fight it whenever they can. Their obstructionism is a pseudo attempt at independence. They don’t leave, but withdraw or withhold intimacy instead. An autonomous person has healthy self-esteem, is assertive, and can take a stand and keep commitments. Not so for someone passive-aggressive. Their behavior is designed to avoid responsibility for themselves and family, and sometimes they depend unfairly on their partner for support.

Withholding: Withholding communication is another form of expressing anger and asserting power passively. They may walk away, refusing to talk things over, or play the victim and say, “You’re always right,” shutting down the discussion. They’re unable to articulate what they want, feel, or need. Instead, they retain their power using the silent treatment or withholding material/financial support, affection, or sex. This undermines intimacy as a way to fight against their dependency.

There are a myriad of other things they might do, like slamming doors, giving away something of yours, or offering you dessert that you’re allergic to or when you’re dieting.

What You Can Do

Because a passive-aggressive person is indirect, it may be hard to recognize what’s going on, but it’s essential that you recognize whom you’re dealing with. Look for a pervasive pattern of several of the above symptom, and monitor your feelings. You may feel angry, confused, or powerless when trying to get cooperation. If this is a common pattern, you’re likely dealing with passive-aggression.

It’s important not to react. When you nag, scold, or get angry, you escalate conflict and give your partner more excuses and ammunition to deny responsibility. Not only that, you step into the role of parent – the very one your partner is rebelling against. Don’t be vague, drop hints, blame, or allow yourself to pay-back in kind.

Neither be passive, nor aggressive. Instead, be assertive. It’s far better to address noncompliance and problems in the relationship directly. Frame it in terms of “We have a problem,” not “You are the problem,” which is shaming. Don’t blame or judge your partner, but describe the behavior you don’t like, how it affects you and the relationship, and what you want. If you let your partner come up with a solution to a problem, there’s a better chance of resolution.

When you go along with your partner’s tactics or take on his or her responsibilities, you enable and encourage more passive-aggressive behavior. It would be similar to nagging your child, but allowing the youngster not to do his or her chores. This takes practice and requires being assertive. Be prepared to set boundaries with consequences. See my blog, “10 Reasons Why Boundaries Don’t Work.” For suggestions on dealing with passive-aggression, write me at for “12 Strategies for Handling Manipulators.” Practice the tools in How to Speak Your Mind- Become Assertive and Set Limits.

© Darlene Lancer, 2015, 2016

Website Pin Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati Digg Google StumbleUpon Premium Responsive

37 thoughts on “Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Partner

  1. Thank you! I have a lot if work ahead of me. After realizing my BF of 8 years is PA, I’m trying to deal with his behavior and work on getting myself independent enough to leave. We are a blended family. 6 kids in household. 3 his(18,16,13), 2 mine (20,18)and 1 together(5 yrs). IT IS A MESS. He takes no real responsibility raising his kids. I have to separate my kids from his because of their nasty habits. He was so wonderful before the baby. I was totally blindsided. Should I tell him he’s free from me, sleep separate (he doesn’t mind that), and simply be congenial until my kids and I can get out? He knows how I feel. He just won’t talk.

    • The important thing is as you say, getting strong enough to leave, if that’s what you want. Meanwhile, you can insist on couple’s counseling and set boundaries when necessary. Get support, such as individual therapy, or you may find CoDA meetings helpful as well as my e-workbooks on setting boundaries and Dealing with a Narcissist (or other difficult people.)

  2. Described my husband to a tee.Have been together 28 years and I want to leave.I have lost my self along the way.He hasn’t broken my spirit yet though. Good article.

    • Yes, feel like I’ve let my PA husband ruin the last 18 Yrs of my life, why why why did I let that happen. My self esteem has taken a hit, I’m down but not out! Just my career as a physician was basically demolished. Then getting sick about 3 Yrs ago, has left me financially dependent on him. I’m now just hoping to recoup and start working. If there were no kids I’d move, but where? Lost all my friends too, the only family I get to see are his, I’m just so so so miserable.

      • Yeah, right… especially after 18 years.. Like its that easy… I hear you Ursula… Went through this for 1 year and 2nd was struggling to kick him out. Eventually packed up and just left myself. My God.. what a pain in the neck these psychos… damaged bi-pedals…

        I hope you’re feeling better girl.

  3. Powerful article! My ex was PA. I noticed increasingly that I was slowly losing my identity, bending to their will, muting myself, holding onto to guilt and taking a lot of blame in our relationship. My self esteem started to pummel and I shutdown. When I shutdown, I got blamed and criticized even more. Such psychologically damaging behavior without accountability. Finally leaving him, he took one last blow that really knocked me down. Grateful to understand the complexity of this behavior.

  4. Leaving would be the easiest solution. But how do I deal with my sense of responsibility? My husband (long-term depression sufferer) depends on me, lives in my home country (far away from his) and is estranged from his family…

      • OMG! Wow… Good God! I can so relate to that ALL OF THAT… I am a professional athlete in the past who was left psychologically destroyed…. but I found the strength and courage to leave, to run away… all the way across the country. Its so scary that we tend to not to lose hope and keep working on “understanding” through suffering… and eventually, slowly but very surely slide into deep depression…. not me. that’s for sure. life is way too short!!!!

  5. This article represents a true picture of my spouse. Though he punishes me by coming close to me only when he wants to have sexual intercourse and after he is done he leaves me till the next time he wants to. When he wants to have sex is only the time he begins talking to me and kissing me on my chick.

  6. Wow! You described my husband of 9 years accurately. He did not reveal his true nature until I gave birth to my third son. Over the years, I have lost my identity. His passive-aggression worsens every year. I am raising money to leave with my 4 children. Enough is enough!

  7. I have been married to a PA man for 40 years. I only became aware of this last Fall when I started seeing a new psychotherapist. In the past we have seen 5 therapists & 1 psychiatrist. No one ever mentioned PA. I have tried many antidepressants for my own child abuse & depression issues. But PA behavior of my spouse has been there all this time. I am so close to leaving him- I am 62- and I now realize my co dependent issues as well. My question is what if my spouse just won’t step out of denial? He won’t communicate & avoids me constantly. He hides in his home office, a book or falls asleep on couch. Living on an island, I am isolated.

    • Go to CoDA meetings along with your therapy to recover yourself. You’ll need to build a life to go to if you ever decide to leave. Do the exercises in my books to help heal your codependency and shame trauma.

  8. thank you darlene, i have been dealing with this issue in my life for ten years now, and no one believed (s) me. not only is this ammunition to make this person leave me alone but also open my eyes and others to see why i need their help to get this person out of my life. I have been traumatized and now i see a light at the end of the tunnel. gratitude to you, and keep up the good work of educating others for the better 🙂

  9. I have been married for 23 years to this man and I have consistently felt he was unresponsive to my needs. I have always tirelessly kept trying to make things work. He has now completely shut down for the past 5 years, he’s made me feel like something is wrong with me. From the very beginning he has controlled every aspect of our lives. When I would ask about our finances he would say, “I never stopped you from buying anything.” The company he works for is mine. He took control and made his presents always of the one in charge. I have realized reading this article that I have been living in an angry position for 15 yrs., my efforts are wasted

  10. Thank you so much for the article. I have been married to PA man for 11 years and together for 16. I am exhausted. When times are good, they are pretty good, but when they are bad they are horrible. I get the silent treatment, ignored and he does whatever he wants whenever he wants ignoring the fact that he is also a father. Recently he has been “punishing” after he created a fight and then began calling me names after I reacted to him. Now he made a Facebook account and won’t add me, just like he refuses to wear his ring…because I want him to. I know my needs aren’t getting met and I feel alone most days. I don’t know what to do anymore.

    • I have no answers, just identification with your issues. I, too, experience the two extremes. I have been married for 32 years. My mother-in-law has been very passive aggressive with me (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree). He has denied it, all along. She is dying. He didn’t invite me to go through her things, even though my daughter did. I found out it was because , according to him, I hate her so why should I want anything? When, in fact, she is the one that keeps displaying hateful behavior towards me. I am so done!

  11. I was in a relationship for almost three years, We were working on the same company but not on the same building. She was on night shift, i’m on morning. I got promoted and it took me almost three months to adjust the new work load, schedule, task, etc. While I was busy, she also attended a fire brigade training. We seldom date. When i have problems, i talk to her but we always argue because of different opinions. One she called me and said she wanted a break up. That night, i wasn’t able to sleep. I realized everything that i didn’t have time for her and didn’t have time to care for her anymore, it was my fault.

  12. I have recently been in an eight month relationship. I knew something was not quite right. Being angry, without knowing why. I’ve come to realize the manipulation and controlling behaviors he displays aren’t loud and explosive, therefore taking me a while to figure out. BUT, I’m finally seeing the conditioning that has been taking place right under my nose. Conditioning me to expect less and less from him, while he has to constantly know where I am, and I have to be available by phone at all times, while he less and less answers my calls.

  13. I am so confused. I’m a very outgoing and aggressive male. My wife is passive agressive but such a good person. I really do not believe she has any craving for me ,but thats to be expected after over 3o yrs of marriage and constantly being unable to enjoy a physical relationship unless everything in her world is perfect. has led to infidelity by me and I’ve just learned to live with it. I love her despite it all but I’m so frustrated. She really never wanted to work and could never fight for herself. I was so young when we met and got married. So was she, I just can’t seem to get excited anymore because she doesnt have any other interests.

  14. I am dealing with a brother who is pa. I have just come into this realization while trying to get him out of my mother’s house so I can make it ready to sell now that she has passed. I am the trustee of her estate and he is holding things up and behaving exactly as you describe. I have given him until the end of the month, but doubt he will move out without legal intervention. I hate to take action, but don’t know what else to do at this point. He is 55 and lived with her for the last 10 years or so. She really wanted him to move on, but could never get him to do so. Can you help me with my dilemma?

  15. Is there a way to prove a persons passive agggression to the courts? The mother of my child had relations with another man while pregnant with my child(understandable as we weren’t talking at the time) when we rekindled aour relationship she told me she hadnt been with anyone else. Two years later she confessed to it saying “i guess it couldnt hurt to tell you noww…” she has since twice accused me of being a pedophile, abusive and is trying to push me out of my childs life. She lies to the courts and has had my visitation reduced and restricted… if i could shine a light on her PA in front of the courts i think shell back off…

  16. That was a superb read. I notice that no one guy said his wife was PA. I’ve been married 30 years and realized this a few years back. The signs you describe are like you are talking about her. Very low self-esteem, constantly late, appears super nice and pliable to everyone, stays calm, and the ‘exaggerated misfortune’ was big. Plus more. She was a homemaker and I’ve often thought “She wouldn’t last a week with a boss.” She would always do something else and claim she thought it was more important. The problem is she is SO ‘sweet, kind & cute’ to others no one would believe me. Including counselors! She snows them!

  17. Thank you so much for this article! I’ve been trying to figure out the dynamic in my 9-yr marriage (second marriage for each of us) and this is *it.* My first husband was an addict and I discovered that the counterpoint to that was co-dependence, so I began addressing my codependencey with attending support groups and doing lots of reading.

    I had no idea that one could have a codependent cycle with passive aggressiveness. Fascinating!

    Anyhow, I’m off to do some more reading and setting some more boundaries. If he leaves me over them, I’ll be sad. It’s been a rough 2 years when I started saying “no.” So be it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *