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How Can I Respond to a Passive-Aggressive Person

Responding to Passive Aggressive people

Respond to a Passive Aggressive Person Effectively

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about 'How to Recognize a Passive Aggressive Person," and now the next stop is what to do with the relationship you have with them. There is no question that it will be somewhere between mildly frustrating and passionately infuriating!

Most frequently in these situations, you cannot quite put your finger on what the issue really is. You're left feeling cut off, cut down or cut up, bleeding with no one noticing, but, how did it happen? From the last post, you have some insights into how to recognize the behaviors in your relationships.  (If you didn't see that post, you'll find it here.) Identifying the behavior is the first step.

So, now you recognize that they somehow just never quite take responsibility for what they do, don't do, and say. It's always someone else's fault.  Isn't that amazing?  Here are some insights to help you respond:

  • Passive Aggressives (P-As) are secretly afraid to express their opinions openly, They may not have the confidence to stand up for what they think, believe or want directly.  They will not behave assertively. So, they take the passive aggressive route: passive up front when they could be honest and direct, and aggressive on the back end as s/he is secretly angry at not having their true thoughts or desires solicited or considered.  With all the kindness you can muster, ask an honest question:

"Did you bring your ideas, insights, concerns or suggestions to the meeting?

  • P-As secretly harbor the idea that they are superior, above reproach, or even perfect. They have to because they are so uncertain of themselves without that stance.  From that supposed perfection,  s/he attempts to deal a death blow--verbal and emotional--to anyone who could possible threaten his/her power. Unfortunately, this is often everyone!  When you are meeting this behavior in a relationship, be direct with your body language. Meet them with full eye contact and fully inhabit your space. Remember what Eleanor Roosevelt said:

"No one can make your feel inferior without your consent."

  • P-As do not take initiative and are the  queens and kings of self-sabotage. There is much more mileage, they think, in being a victim than in being their vision of success. In fact, they are often scared silly of success and have an endless array of reasons why success eludes them--all of them someone else's fault, of course, the times, or the parentage, or the lack of opportunities, or....  If you are observing this pattern in someone, watch with new eyes: are they truly just so lacking in self-esteem and self-confidence that they need boosting and kind words, or, are they hooked into their victim role to avoid responsibility for themselves and their results?  In this case, these victims are really volunteers!
  • P-A behavior needs two people to exist. No one can be P-A by themselves because there is no one to try to control by their behavior. P-A REQUIRES a relationship of some kind. Remember, as I said in the last post, P-A people are not doing this on purpose. They are on cruise control. Somewhere along their living, there have been role models for this behavior, or situations in which they learned to engage in this manner.  If you are living or working with a P-A, your mission--should you choose to accept it--is NOT TO PLAY.  Be clear, straightforward, direct and honest with the P-A at all times. Don't wobble, vacillate or sway, especially when s/he uses the P.A. anthem:

"I couldn't help it."

  • P.As like to use "can't" when they really mean "won't." This is a huge distinction and being in relationship with a person who repeatedly relinquishes all responsibility for their actions is, as I said earlier, frustrating and infuriating.  A P-A is simply being dishonest to his/her self as well as anyone they speak to when they confuse "can't" with "won't."  They particularly "can't" do things they don't like to do, especially if you have asked them to do it. You've likely noticed that. This is one place where you have to sit up and smell the herbal tea: if a person won't do something and you continually ask them to do it, who really has the problem?  Of course, if this is a colleague and you need the person to fulfill their job functions and they can't/won't, the frustration level escalates. If you are not the boss, try only to ask for things you know they can and will do. If you are the boss, take note: if you hired them because you think they can and will and find out they can't or won't, it is time for a performance review!
  • P-As usually discount the problems they create. That is, if they cannot first deflect them entirely to being someone else's fault.  Be kindly direct  (You'll find another post about that here .) Don't make excuses for them. Don't make nice. Don't humor them. Don't ingratiate yourself to them...really, really, really don't!  Give the behavior a name and place it directly where it belongs: in his or her own court!

"When you say something mean or judgmental, and then say you didn't mean it, you are giving me a very mixed message. How can I know when to believe you?"

  • Trust is a big issue with P-As. When they say they will or can and then complain that they can't or won't, trust erodes like chalk: instantly. And thus, so does the relationship. It only takes a couple of times and there simply isn't any trust at all. P-A behavior tends to be immature behavior. So, this time you have to put on your big girl panties and deal with it directly:

"In any relationship I want in my life, there has to be trust. Trust occurs when each of us does what we say we will do when we say we will do it.
Right now, I've learned that I cannot trust you. Would you like to make an agreement to both do what we say we will do in a timely manner?
Then, we will also be agreeing to demonstrate that we are trustworthy."

There are many, many faces of Passive Aggression. Hopefully, these insights will serve as a primer for approaching some of the most obvious ones.

NOTE: For an excellent article on managing P-A behavior in your primary relationship, I invite you to enjoy this article by Lynne Namka, EdD.

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  2. Rogue13 - Reply


    It has been discovered that my husband is a passive aggressive person. For twenty years I have known him and never knew! Now I am seeing traits of in his siblings and some of my family. There is also narcissim there, in a big way (ha.) It makes so much sense and now, unfortunately, and has been a lesson in which I know to do more for myself if I want a result by a certain time.

    Yes, the “blame game” is something I consider almost an art form! Right down to the late notices, with banks, utility companies…not just people are to blame for defaults.

    A few questions that I have are: is there any way possible to help them not feel threatened, by us, or to help diminish that feeling? Is it possible to help them see that a partner is on their side?

    The mind games are terrible…it goes okay for a few days and then if I speak anything other than “ok”, the silent treatment comes. If I go too long being agreeble, I am told I am “woosy.” Amazing.

    I try to remember that there was a reason for this way of living to start and it helps when my “buttons are pushed”. Thanks very much for all the helpful insights.

    •  avatar
      DrShaler - Reply


      Oh, yes, you do know the joys of living with passive-aggressive folks! The good news is that it calls us to attention to live in alignment with our own values, vision, beliefs and purpose diligently. And, to expand our communication and conflict management skills, too.

      To answer your questions:

        Passive-aggressive people have an inside-out issue: they do not want to be direct because they don’t believe it will be acceptable. They then use diverse means and tactics to remove themselves from any responsibility or accountability for their actions. They don’t want to be blamed. They have to do their own work, so, unless that happens, the answer is “No, there is no way to help them not feel threatened.” It is likely nothing that you are doing. It is in their past history and current perceptions. All you can do is monitor your side of things to ensure you have removed any sense of accusation or threat.
        It is possible for them to see that a partner is on their side, however, it usually takes a lot of un-doing before that can happen. Passive-aggressive people have difficulties comprehending their own behavior when it is explained to them. So, it takes time with a therapist to get to the point where they see it. Then, it takes moving on to replace the P-A behaviors with ones that are healthier.

      I wish I had better news, but that’s the way it is here far from Lake WoBegon…lol.

      I wish you well.


  3. Etc72013 - Reply

    I have been trying to find some helpful hints for dealing with my husband’s passive aggressiveness in the wake(1year) of discovering he had an online/emotional affair and planned on leaving me in 2010. Everything says for me to be calm, rational and treat him as if he is 4 years old and needs a “time out”. From being with him for 19 years and though there were small signs of his behavior, treating him as if he were a child seems to be counter productive since this behavior was instilled in him in his childhood. I can’t get him to talk about his affair, and I am not even sure if it is over, I just know that I am waiting for the other shoe to drop and the eggshells I am walking on are starting to hurt my feet. He has pushed all of it down deep and if I try to talk to him he gets angry and accuses me of not trying to work on our marriage and instead of fighting for him I am just fight him. I could go on forever but I will end with just a HELP.

    • DrShaler avatar
      DrShaler - Reply


      It sounds like this has been a long-time concern and frustration for you. It’s certainly time to address it and see what the best next steps are.

      The idea of treating him like a petulant 4-year old makes no sense to me, so I am glad to hear that you found it inappropriate.

      When you say that you have not been able to discuss this with him, that is a big red flag. If he won’t discuss it, he does not want to discuss it. Why not? Several possible reasons:

        he was very unhappy about being caught before he could/would enact his plan to leave, i.e., you stole his thunder
        he was embarrassed about being caught because he fooled himself into thinking what he was doing was harmless
        he thought he could get away with an online affair because it provided him with the feeling that he used to get from you
        he wanted to get your attention and when he got it, he was unwilling to handle the fall out.

      Only your husband knows this answer, of course, and, apparently, he’s not telling!

      Have you had a long-term history of not talking about emotional issues? It seems the behavior you mention, getting angry and accusing you of not trying to work on your marriage, could well be what we call “projection”. He ascribes the thoughts, feelings and actions he hides from himself and others to you. He “projects” his stuff onto you. He uses you as a screen to show the reel that is playing inside him. This is common in people who are not happy with themselves at deeper levels. I have other thoughts about other psychological issues we need to discuss, but not here.

      For your own health in every way, I think it is time to set some boundaries in your relationship: clarify them, express them and maintain them without compromise. Why are you with a man who will not talk with you about important matters? It’s been three years or more. What keeps you there? What kind of help have you sought personally? Have you sought help together? It is definitely time for both those things, if possible.

      The answer to your “HELP!” request is that you need to talk this through with a professional, not a friend. These issues that I have outlined are complex and need careful attention. I’m available to work with through Skype, or choose a professional you trust. But, do take the next step. Your life is going by and eggshells are an unsupportive medium to be walking on!

      I wish you well. I’m ready to help.


  4. lm - Reply

    That article was really interesting, but it seems to assume that the woman in the relationship has unlimited time, unlimited patience, unlimited physical energy, unlimited emotional resources to cope with the exhaustion and frustration of the husband’s behavior. That seems kind of unrealistic to me given the time constraints women in committed relationships are under, who also work full-time jobs, right now in the 21st century.

    It also seems like not only do mental health experts assume we’re going to have the unlimited mental and emotional resources to deal with this passive-aggressive behavior by the men in our lives … but I also don’t really hear or read much mention of what reward the women are supposed to get out of all this.

    I thought the foundation of relationships was supposed to be reciprocity, and that they’re supposed to be mutually beneficial. The husband gets all this patience, and attention, and resources poured into the management of his behavior. Meanwhile, he’s giving nothing back – and possibly creating more havoc in the family in the process – so what is the wife supposed to get out of all this …?

    • DrShaler avatar
      DrShaler - Reply


      Good questions! For sake of the example in the article you read, it was the woman to whom I suggested changes. It could have as easily been a man in the example. The point of the article was to help readers realize that there are steps that one can take to move the relationship into a healthier state. That would mean that the person reading the article was wanting and willing to do what was possible to improve the relationship. Maybe, s/he would do that to improve their own understanding of relationship dynamics, communication and conflict management strategies.

      I understand your expressed frustration as I was previously a working mother of three married to the poster child for passive-aggression. And, yes, mutuality, equality, reciprocity in all things positive are just what we DO want in healthy relationships. When that is not there, we have three options: do the work to see if the relationship can improve, complain to everyone who will listen and stay in the marriage and relish being a victim, or leave. The article was written for those in the first category.

      Someone has to go first in any relationship, if you want it to change. Hopefully, the article provided ways to change the dynamics and improve things.

      You say that “the husband gets all this patience, and attention, and resources poured into the management of his behavior. Meanwhile, he’s giving nothing back.” Is this your experience, or a projection of what you think might happen? If this is your experience, I’m sorry that things did not work better. Clearly, you have learned some valuable lessons to inform any future relationships you might enter into. If it is the latter, then that could work for you as an iron-clad reason for not taking steps to see if the relationship can be improved. “Why bother? S/he’ll never change anyway.”

      In my opinion, if we love someone and/or have children with them, there is wisdom in doing all that we can do to turn the relationship into a healthy, mutually-supportive and mutually-responsive one. Of course, some relationships are too toxic to stay in. Some relationships are too ego-based to consider the well-being of another. Some relationships continue to improve when one person sets boundaries, expresses and maintains them and the relationship becomes more respectful. And, some relationships blossom when one partner is positively pro-active.

      If we go into a relationship with the question: “What am I going to get out of this?” the relationship is already headed for trouble. The really helpful question is: “What can WE contribute to OUR relationship to have the most honest, respectful, loving, trusting and safe experience possible?”

      It truly does take two to tango, but one can learn the steps and teach the other!

      I wish you well.
      Dr. Shaler

  5. Jeanette - Reply

    How can I set up a session with you via Skype? I am absolutely at the end of my rope and in immense pain and frustration with my PA husband. I am ready to leave. We haven’t spoken one word to each other in 3 days, and this happens over and over again. Can’t handle it another day. My temper gets the best of me and I scream terrible things at him just to get SOME kind of response from him, which I know is THE wrong thing to do, but I feel like a crazy person.

    • DrShaler avatar
      DrShaler - Reply


      You can easily set up a time with me by going to this link: and create a login. Then you can choose your time and all will be ready. Remember to consider time zone differences as wll times on my calendars are Pacific Time.

      I wish you well.
      Dr Shaler

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