Our behaviour forms part – if not most – of the language we use to communicate our feelings in conjunction with what we say. As the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.” And in that line of thinking, some actions also speak far better than others. Passive-aggressive behaviour involves being indirectly aggressive towards someone. In contrast to verbal and physical abuse, which is overtly violent, passive-aggressive tendencies fly under the radar. They’re subtle and tend to cause a slow-burning escalation and tension that reach a blow-off point before the cycle resets itself and starts again. These behaviours are some of the most damaging to relationships, as the mental and emotional scarring they leave is hidden from view and even normalised to a certain extent. If you’re unsure of whether either you or someone you know is engaging in these types of behaviour, here are some of the most common indicators:
1. The Denial of Anything Being Wrong
When the passive-aggressive person has to face conflict, they will never admit their feelings verbally to either avoid the conflict or as a means to send a more subtle message. As long as they maintain their denial whilst being asked if they’re ok, they maintain control of the dynamic of the situation. The lack of admittance means that they hold a crucial piece of information that the other person in the situation wants – and needs – to bring the conflict to a resolution.
2. Withdrawing and Silent Behaviours
If a picture can paint a thousand words, then sometimes saying nothing at all can speak even louder than that… One of the favourite weapons of the passive aggressor is the silent treatment. This is done in part for two reasons: 1) the person in question is uncomfortable with the idea of admitting their feelings. 2) It is used as a subtle – or not so subtle tactic – to make it clear that they’re incredibly unhappy about something. The tension that is created by doing this is way diverting the flow of attention to getting their own needs met.
3. Using Manipulation and Withholding Information
In some situations, the passive aggressor may decide to toy with the person they’re in a relationship with by being ‘economical with the truth’ or unresponsive in a way that deliberately antagonises. Then, once they’ve achieved their goal of riling someone up, they’ll offer the information they withheld to make that person’s blow-up appear to totally unwarranted. This has the effect of creating yet more, deeper-rooted animosity due to the covert form of manipulation that has taken place.
4. Agreeing to Cooperate But Then Doing the Opposite
A classic example passive-aggressiveness, which may go unnoticed for quite some time is ‘insincere cooperativeness.’ You may be in agreement with someone that they’ll assist you only to find them to back out and leave you stuck. This help may be offered with the intention of never planning never to help at all, or it could be that the person you ask will view this as opportunity to hurt you if asking them. However, in some instances, they may actually follow through but only after a lengthy period of delay and not out their best effort in to help.
5. Using Contact Through Technology to Avoid Communication
As the main goal of passive-aggressive behaviour is to avoid all confrontation, anything that can put a screen or barrier in between face-to-face contact will be taken advantage of. The rise of smartphones and social media has made it all too easy for people to maintain distance whilst still engaging in communication. Abusive messages sent by text are common approach because of the ‘quasi-anonymity’ and lack of ownership that is perceived to exist. But this also works on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s just as easy for someone to be considered passive-aggressive by not answering their messages.
6. Making Excuses
Again, this is one of the more subtle signs, that informs some of the earlier points that were mentioned. Making excuses can often be used as a covert way of inviting challenge that the passive-aggressor knows can’t be called out. Oftentimes, there may be some element of truth to them. But the plausibility will be stretched as far as possible. For example, a sick relative or a grieving process may be used as a convenient excuse to cover for a lack of application at work. This will be done in full awareness that to challenge this position would be insensitive at best, and at worst allow this person to escalate the situation to HR on the grounds of non-compassion.
7. Making Comments That Undermine Self-Esteem
The recurring jabs in a relationship made under the guise of only being harmless or a joke are one of the most toxic behaviours within passive-aggressiveness. It can be done in a way that is meant to be playfully sarcastic but actually causes great harm to the person receiving them. And when these comments are called out, the accuser is then dismissed as having no sense of humour or being ‘too sensitive.’ The element of shame that is brought into the situation creates a state of acceptance, which allows this behaviour to continue on without being challenged.
8. Withholding Intimacy as Punishment
The withholding of intimacy is a classic strategy used in romantic relationships. Much like the denial of anger, it puts all the control of a situation in the hands of the person withholding. It’s essentially a form of emotional blackmail. The passive-aggressor will hold their partner hostage until they comply with their demands or make an admittance of something they’ve done wrong. The withholding of love is such a powerful tool of manipulation because it’s the unifying force that brings two people together in a relationship. Meaning, there is only so its absence can be tolerated before something has to change.