Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Men

Jay Earley, PhD

Signs of Passive-Aggressive Men

If your husband or partner has the Passive-Aggressive Pattern, he tends to act in a way that looks as though he is agreeable and pleasing on the surface, but in the end his behavior hurts or frustrates you. He may only be aware of his surface desire to please you, and perhaps that he’s afraid of not pleasing you.

If you express your frustration with him, he may feel wronged. He may even say to himself, "I'm doing my best to be nice and agreeable, but she doesn't seem to get this. She keeps getting on my case for doing things that upset her, but I don't have any idea what she's talking about."

There is an unconscious part of him that is resentful and probably defiant. This part is irritated at how much he kowtows to you. Or this part of him may be angry at you for things you said that hurt him. However, he doesn't feel that he has any right to feel this way, so it all goes underground out of his consciousness. He acts in seemingly agreeable ways, but he adds a little mean twist to his behavior that frustrates you.

For example, you ask him to do something for the house that needs to happen by a certain date. He agrees to do it, but then he forgets about it until after the date has passed, and you have to suffer the consequences. Consciously, he really did forget, but unconsciously, his Passive-Aggressive Part did this on purpose to punish you for something you did that bothered him.

Another example: Walt is somewhat attracted to a woman at work. He has no intention of acting on this because he is faithful to his wife, Jenny. Jenny has met her and is jealous of her beauty, and so she has made it clear she doesn't want Walt to even have a friendship with her. Walt acquiesces to this, though unconsciously he feels resentful.

Walt says Yes to a lunch with the woman without telling Jenny, rationalizing, “I know I’m not going to have an affair, so what is wrong with just having lunch?” However, Walt "accidentally" leaves a clue that alerts Jenny to the lunch. She is very upset. Walt's Passive-Aggressive Part has gotten back at Jenny for trying to control him.

Dealing with Passive-Aggressive Men

If your partner is Passive-Aggressive, there are some things you can do to minimize this tendency in him.

One is to refrain from behavior or communication that appears to be controlling, demanding, or entitled. Make sure to let your partner know that you want to hear his opinion about anything being considered. Don’t tell him to do something; instead, ask if he is willing to do it.

When he frustrates you by failing to follow through on something he agreed to, don’t nag or push him about it. Point out that he isn’t doing it and suggest that maybe he really didn’t want to do it and maybe shouldn’t have agreed to do it in the first place. This places the initiative back with him to decide what to do rather than reacting unconsciously to you.

Try to avoid triggering your partner's fears that lead him to please you. If he doesn’t start out pleasing you when he doesn’t really want to, he will be less likely to become resentful and defiant. Try to get a sense of which underlying fears he might have that lead him to be a pleaser. If he has enough awareness, talk with him to get a better sense of what he might be afraid of. This will help you be aware of times when you unintentionally trigger his fears.

For example, if he is afraid of being judged or rejected if he doesn’t please you, be on the lookout for anything you might say that contains any hint of criticism or dismissal. Even if he is overly sensitive to judgment or abandonment, you can maximize the chances of his feeling safe with you by watching what you say.

If he hints that you are being critical or rejecting, stop for a moment to consider what he is saying and see if it is true. See if you can become aware of such behavior in the future so you stop acting it out. You can even make a point of being explicitly accepting and reassuring to him.

How You May be Contributing

You can also look into yourself. I have found that sometimes when a man is being passive-aggressive, his wife may, in fact, be too invested in having things her way. This is her side of the dance they do together. So if you are reading this article because your husband is passive-aggressive, I advise you to consider if you are being too controlling. You may inadvertently be triggering his angry and rebellious parts by the way you make demands, or by your expectation that you know best (and he’d better do what you want). He will go along with you consciously but resent you and rebel against you unconsciously, which will get acted out in a Passive-Aggressive manner.

This is a common dynamic for couples—passive-aggressive men and controlling women. If you have a Controlling Pattern, you may be able to contribute to a resolution of this difficulty by exploring what is behind your need to have things your way and changing your Controlling Pattern.

Making Changes

To change passive-aggressive behavior, use Self-Therapy Journey--an interactive online tool for psychological healing and personal growth which has a module for the Passive-Aggressive Pattern

To change controlling behavior, Self-Therapy Journey also has a module for the Controlling Pattern.