My Partner Is Passive Aggressive

July 26, 2016

Posted By: Shaunescy

Written by Stacey Tompkins, MA, CIC

Do we know anyone until we live with them?

When my husband and I were first together, we shared a tiny room in a small apartment in Seattle. We’d often experience people dropping by to sell us things: magazine subscriptions, cleaning supplies and sometimes religion. Once when I was in the bedroom and my husband was in the living room we received a knock on the door.

I was napping so I figured he’d answer it. He didn’t. I got up and looked around, called his name, and then answered the door myself. “Hello Ma’am, I’d like to tell you about (some religion) and give you some pamphlets….” to which I replied “No, thank you” and shut the door. Then I turned around and opened the hall closet and there was my husband, standing between the jackets and raincoats, his head slightly bent to avoid the metal bar.

“Hi. You are so much better at saying ‘no’...” he said.

This was a classic passive aggressive moment. He didn’t ask for what he wanted, and he manipulated the situation so he didn’t have to (and he still got what he wanted). It works, and it’s also bush league relationship skills.

It’s easier to identify the defense mechanisms other people use. Once you have an “aha” experience with one way of managing conflict, it’s fun to spot it elsewhere. Being passive-aggressive is super common. You can’t throw sand (By accident! Whoops!) without hitting a passive aggressive person. We use and need defense mechanisms sometimes (life is tough, who can always process everything in a healthy way?) and there’s a large menu of options when it comes to maladaptively responding to the nonsense we have to navigate in this world.

Here are some of the most used defense mechanisms:

Passive Aggressive-Manipulating situations to get what you want, without being straightforward or speaking your truth, or stepping it up.

Aggressive-Minus the passive part, meaning it’s straightforward, overt aggression, which is a cleaner response than passive-aggressive and also has the unfortunate side dish of ending relationships.

Accommodating-Going along to get along, even if you will resent it later, even if it costs you your dignity or self respect, sacrificing yourself is what you do.

Avoidant-Choosing not to participate in events, activities or conversations thereby eliminating any issues, but causing other issues...loneliness for one.

Denying-Re-defining any experience or feeling so that it fits into the ‘acceptable’ realm even though it’s nowhere near the ‘acceptable’ realm and isn’t even a distant cousin. You have your story and are sticking to it.

There are more, but these are the most popular. It’s helpful to identify which one you engage in most, so it becomes a less powerful unconscious force in your life. Meaning, once you know what you usually do, and can catch yourself doing it, you then have a choice about it.

How do you discover your favorite defense? The best way is to ask your partner or your kids. Or, ask anyone you fully trust. Also, consider what happens when someone says to you with a raised eyebrow or a heaviness, “We need to talk...”

Do you hide? Lash out? Roll over? These are clues.

Once you recognize what your ‘go to’ defense mechanism is, you can then choose what to enlist instead. The point is you are going to be taking responsibility for your own emotional world, asking for what you want, and communicating with skill. This feels empowering. Being empowered simply means you are navigating life with a sense of free will, awareness and agency. You are being generous, but not codependent. You are being kind but not gushy. You are being honest but not bullying. You’re balanced.

If you aren’t using the usual maladaptive ways of getting your needs met, then what? It’s important to introduce a new ‘go to’ when you’re releasing old ways.

Skills for making the transition:

Pause. This is the number one most useful behavior when enlisting mindfulness and working toward transition. Nothing can change if you are on automatic pilot. Pausing causes a momentary break in the status quo and you then can act on choice.

Listen. Decide in the morning that when you get triggered (when, not if) you’ll pause and listen rather than react. Pause. Listen.

Mull. After listening you will mull it over, take some time, and get back to the encounter when you feel ‘right action’ arising.

Engage in Right Action. This is when you’ve spent enough time considering your choices, filtering them through your head, heart and gut that you can move forward with confidence and kindness.

In the interest of self-awareness, we look at our thoughts, actions and interactions to wake ourselves up and navigate the world with mindfulness.

Stacey Tompkins lives in downtown Bozeman with her elderly mutt, two teenage daughters and one energetic husband. She is an irrepressible writer and loves working with individuals and couples as a life coach through her business, Sungate Integral Coaching (406-570-1304 or

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