How we fight can be characterized by what we actively do versus what we refuse to do, and this is the heart of passive-aggression, a personality style which can bring very different problems into relationships than covert-aggression.
Perhaps there’s no more misunderstood type of character than the passive-aggressive personality. There are a lot of reasons for the common misunderstandings about these individuals. For one thing, the term “passive-aggressive” is often misused and misapplied not only by lay persons but also by professionals who ought to know better. But because passive-aggressive personalities can be so frustrating to deal with at times, it’s important to know what really makes them tick and how to best approach your relations with them.
To understand what passive-aggressive personalities are all about, let’s first clear up some of the more common misconceptions. For starters, it’s important to understand the dimension of interpersonal dynamics we call “passive” vs. “active.” In Character Disturbance, I point out there are lots of ways to aggress: we can aggress openly (i.e., overtly) and we can also aggress in subtle or deceptive ways (i.e., covertly). And, as I describe in In Sheep’s Clothing, there are individuals whose very personality is defined by the subtle, deceptive ways they try to gain advantage over you, exploit you, or otherwise manipulate you. You can also aggress directly or indirectly — e.g., by getting someone else to do your dirty work for you. Sometimes people aggress because they feel threatened and “react” instinctively out of fear or anger. This is reactive aggression, which has a very distinctive quality to it and is radically different from predatory (or instrumental) aggression. (See “Understanding the Predatory Aggressive Personality”.) Aggression can also be active or passive. That is, how we fight can be best reflected by what we actively do vs. what we either don’t or won’t do. This is the heart of passive-aggression: fighting by not doing or stubbornly resisting the efforts of others. Unfortunately, for many years, both professionals and lay persons have often used the term “passive-aggressive” to describe covert-aggressive behaviors and also labeled covert-aggressors (i.e., manipulators and superficially benign appearing controllers and abusers) as passive-aggressive personalities. But passive-aggressive individuals are a very different breed, are shaped by some very different underlying dynamics, and bring some very different problems into their relationships.
If there’s one word that might capture the heart of the passive-aggressive individual’s personality style, it would be (as in the words of the eminent personality theorist Theodore Millon) ambivalent. Passive-aggressive personality types have the misfortune to be “stuck” on the proverbial fence of emotional development: in their heart of hearts, they want to be emotionally independent, answer to no one, and chart their own course. But they have deep doubts about their ability to do so. And because they’re so sensitive to shame, they never want to risk doing anything that invites the possibility of failure. So, they end up chronically seeking the support of others. Still, they detest having to rely on others and especially resent the notion of caving in to others demands or expectations. So when it comes to functioning emotionally on a primarily independent vs. dependent or autonomous vs. self doubting plane, they are deeply divided, and that’s what causes all the problems. They want to do things their way, but in their hesitancy, look for direction from others. When someone gives that direction, they resent it and then resist complying. It’s their penchant for that frequent passive-resistance (i.e., passive-aggression) that makes living with them so frustrating at times.
When I was doing clinical research for my books, I encountered a couple who’d been married for about 9 years. Neither liked to cook and would eat out quite frequently. Almost every discussion about where to eat ended up in a fight. “Marge,” who was hesitant to assert herself, despite having lots of ideas about where she might like to go, would ask “Fred” where he wanted to go. Fred, being a solidly independent sort, always had a ready opinion to offer. Marge, hating to simply go along with everything Fred wanted (and also having some ideas of her own), would express some reservation. Fred, not wanting a fight to ensue, would indicate his willingness to let Marge make the call. But Marge, who didn’t want to be blamed for picking a disappointing place, would again defer to Fred. Fred would make another call, and again, Marge would resist. This back and forth exchange would continue until Fred was ready to rip his hair out. Sometimes, he would lash out. Marge, on the other hand, would shut down and give Fred “the silent treatment.” The next day, she might not so accidentally “forget” once again to pick up his shirts at the dry cleaners. On and on it went with this couple, day after day, deeply ensconced in the passive-aggressive “dance.”
As those who’ve lived or worked with passive-aggressive personalities know, they can be whiney, stubborn, difficult, withholding, and very, very, frustrating to deal with. Fortunately, getting them help in therapy is a much more hopeful proposition than getting help for the covert-aggressors they’re frequently mistaken for. Because they inwardly really want to be more autonomous and independent but are simply hung up in that pursuit primarily by their shame sensitivity, helping them feel better about themselves by experiencing small successes in making more assertive choices is all it takes to eventually bring them out of their passive-aggressive pattern. As I mention in both my books, the passive-aggressive personality style is fundamentally a very self defeating one, so it’s always empowering when a person who has these tendencies overcomes them with proper help. It’s also a big relief for anyone who might have to live or work with them. Getting off the fence is what it takes. Once the person has decided to function in a more autonomous, independent way, and to make peace with episodic failure, their typical negativism gives way to greater joy and vitality, and living with them can be a much more harmonious enterprise.
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