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Everyone dreads sitting down at the dinner table. A ridiculous spat about nothing over the breakfast table has escalated.
Mum is not talking to Dad – she won’t even look at him. Dad asks his eldest son to pass the vegetables – ignoring the fact that his wife even exists.
The atmosphere is stilted and awkward although no-one really knows why.
The youngest daughter chatters on nervously, trying to make people feel better. She can’t eat her food because her little tummy is in knots.
After dinner, Dad clears away the dishes, banging the pots and pans in the sink as loudly as possible. Mum, reads the paper pretending that she hasn’t even noticed.
The kids are fed up. They retreat to their bedrooms.
Healthy Attitudes are Important
This is a classic example of passive aggressive behavior and the toxic impact that it can have on a relationship and, indeed, the whole family
As outlined in earlier articles, passive aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of anger or upset by someone who feels unable to express their emotions openly. Passive aggressive people can be fairly easy to spot, read this article here to get some pointers.
When both members of a relationship have a healthy attitude towards aggression and anger they can deal with it effectively. Usually by telling the other that they are upset, talking about it to ascertain the causes, then finding a resolution to bring the matter to a close. In relationships where feelings of anger and aggression are not dealt with openly, a totally different scenario ensues.
People who exhibit passive aggressive behavior generally want to avoid conflict, but also want to get their views and feelings heard. When dealing with a passive aggressive partner, people often feel goaded, that they are being deliberately manipulated and wound up. They feel frustrated that they are grappling with an issue that they don’t have full sight of and may not fully understand. It’s much more difficult to address issues because they are not out in the open; instead, they constantly simmer below the surface and often become protracted and drawn out. Something that could have been resolved quickly by an open discussion, can last for hours or even days when it exists in the unspoken space.
Why it’s important to deal with Passive Aggressive Behavior
If you are in a relationship involving children, it’s very important to ensure that anger and aggression are dealt with in an open and constructive way.
Passive aggressive behavior is usually the result of past experiences that have left a deep impact. For example, if you grew up experiencing first-hand explosive tempers, aggression, and even violence it is likely that as you grow older this emotion will scare you and that you will seek to avoid it as evokes painful memories.
Similarly, if you grew up in an environment with a zero-tolerance approach to anger and aggression, which rather than being addressed was simply shut down, denied, and overruled, it is likely that this conditioning has taught you to bottle it up and not let it out.
When we grow up feeling that anger is bad and that it should never be expressed, we fail to see how important it is to deal with and move on, and how in actual fact it can make relationships even stronger.
As adults it’s really important that we model behavior appropriately to our kids. Passive aggressive behavior is a response to previous experiences – thus, it is possible for us to change. Remember, it’s the behaviour that needs to change, not the person. If you need to help your partner be less passive aggressive remind them of this, if it’s you, then remember you can change if you want to.
How to Beat Passive Aggressive Behavior at Home
To really conquer passive aggressive behavior at home – amongst both adults and kids – requires a long term approach. Everyone must contribute and be committed to doing something about it, especially the adults who will model the behavior to the kids. Read these steps to help you create a positive culture in your home.
Be clear on Boundaries
For starters, it is crucial for the adults in the home to be clear on their emotional and physical boundaries. You are two separate, independent individuals and you both have limits. This is perfectly normal and healthy in any relationship. Agree what these are, explaining clearly to each other so that they are understood.
- You prefer not to have aggressive exchanges in front of other people
- You ask that your requests for physical space and quiet time are respected
- That, when you are angry you would prefer 10 minutes alone to calm down.
The boundaries really are personal to you. However, they need to lay the basic ground rules that each person is happy with.
Over time, as these boundaries become the norm they can become increasingly flexible through choice as your relationship strengthens and the passive aggressive behavior diminishes – not through a lack of respect or pressure.
If you are the recipient of passive aggressive behavior from your partner ensure that they are clear of the impact that their behavior has on you. However, also be sure to tell them how you feel about them and be supportive. Explain to them that being angry and arguing does not mean that your relationship is going to end, help them to be more rational and not to catastrophize.
Similarly, if you are the aggressor explain your fears and be prepared to really listen to what your partner has to say.
Set some time aside where you can talk without being interrupted. Before you meet, each think of some recent examples of where you feel that problems have arisen. Write down what happened and how it made you feel. Then, think about what you both could have done differently and what you would have liked them to have done instead. When you are ready, sit down and talk about these examples.
It’s important to be specific here so that the conversation is constructive.
For example: tell your partner that you feel stressed in the morning before work and that you don’t have much time to get everything done, so his or her support to get out of the house quickly would be much appreciated. Ask politely that issues that need more time to discuss are not brought up at this time.
Accept that Conflict is Normal and that Change Takes Time
Most relationships have some element of anger and conflict. This is perfectly normal and healthy as long as it’s dealt with appropriately.
Establishing a culture in the home of how to deal with it constructively is beneficial to all members of the family. Most importantly it’s great for the kids to see that it can be resolved and that it is not to be feared. If anything, relationships can improve with a ‘clearing of the air’ sometimes.
Finally, passive aggressive people don’t change over night. It does take time but it also takes a team. Remember that you are in this together for the benefit of everyone and that answers come from all of you – not just one person.
How to Handle Conflict if an Argument Occurs
No doubt it’ll happen – there will situations where, despite all of your best efforts, conflict emerges and the old behaviors come out. Here are a few quick tips to tackle passive aggressive behavior in the heat of the moment:
- Take a break. Be brave and recognize the behavior for what it is. Wait until you are both in a more positive frame of mind before talking about the issue. This is the most important step. Don’t seek to blame, just accept it and try and calm down.
- Be open – talk and listen, really listen, to each other in equal measure. Be respectful of each other’s boundaries.
- Try and find a solution together – one that works for both of you.
- Make it happen, put the plan into action and come back later to discuss together to see if it worked. Improve it if needs be.
- Rinse and repeat as necessary.
Passive Aggressive Behavior: Summary
So much about passive aggressive behavior is focussed on the past, so when dealing with a situation its really important to stay in the present and look to make things better in the future.
Regularly revisit each other’s boundaries and be open to listening – it is different than simply waiting to talk.
Relationships are made of two halves. It’s not about winning and being right, it’s about finding a workable solution for everyone and demonstrating positive behavior to the kids. Nobody is perfect.
Interested to find out more?
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Further reading from The Rediscovery of Me