Passive-aggressive behaviour is a hallmark of controlling and abusive relationships, but it’s easy to become confused about what we mean by passive-aggressive behaviour and what it looks like.
Passive-aggressive is when someone is indirectly or covertly aggressive, rather than being open and transparent about it. They hide their aggression behind smiles, sarcasm or snarky behaviour. One example is when someone says they are “fine” whilst tapping their foot and looking sulky. We can see clearly that they are not fine and we’re left to second-guess what the problem is. All of us are capable of this behaviour at times, especially when we don’t feel brave enough to speak openly, but when it’s used deliberately as a tool to manipulate, then it becomes more harmful.
Here are 7 signs of passive-aggressive behaviour:
Backhanded compliments: Instead of validating someone’s efforts, they say things like, “Well done, you finally cut the grass, I’m amazed.” Or, when you’ve made an effort to look nice, they might say, “Your hair looks nice, it’s about time you had it cut.” They give to us with one hand, and take firmly away with the other.
Insults disguised as humour: If someone keeps taking subtle swipes at us disguised as humour it can be hard to challenge because it looks as if we can’t take a joke, but it’s just a form of bullying. Sometimes these “jokes” are made publicly and can be humiliating or degrading, especially when made about our appearance or intelligence.
Sarcasm: This is a very common form of passive-aggressive behaviour. An example can include comments like, “Yes, I’d LOVE to empty the dishwasher, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do.”
The silent treatment: Giving us the cold shoulder and sulking because they didn’t get their way is designed to make us uneasy. It kills the energy in a home which now feels negative and dismal, an especially toxic atmosphere for children.
Using social media: We’ve all cringed at posts on social media when they’re directed at a partner. They might say something like, “So, I’m alone AGAIN tonight” when their partner has gone out for the evening. It could be making reference to their partner watching sports or spending money, and my personal favourite is changing a profile status to single after every argument.
Deliberate procrastination: They promise to do something, but it never gets done, or it takes a very long time. Examples might include promising to go somewhere with us but not being ready on time, or not returning home in time to go with us.
Refusing to be part of decisions: Passive-aggressive people may refuse to say what they want to do, where they want to go, or what they want to eat. They will say they don’t mind and ask us to decide for them. Then, they express disapproval when we get it wrong.
Passive-aggressive behaviour may not seem as harmful as other forms of control or abuse, but poor behaviour is always on a spectrum and tends to get worse over time. It’s hard living with someone who never says what they mean, especially when it’s used to put us down or throw us off balance.
This type of behaviour creates confusion, sadness, and ultimately lowers self-esteem. It should be viewed as a warning that further manipulation is likely coming our way.
National Training Manager