Linda Lewis Griffith

How to recognize and deal with passive-aggressive behavior

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Your husband promised to help clean out the guest bedroom in anticipation of your mother’s visit. Yet two hours later, he’s still glued to his computer. When you kindly remind him of his commitment, he mumbles, “In a minute. I’m still busy.” You eventually finish the chore on your own.

Hubby may be demonstrating passive-aggressive behavior. That’s the habitual, indirect expression of hostility or anger by being stubborn, sullen, forgetful or otherwise resistant to a task.

Passive aggression is inherently accompanied by an imbalance of power. That inequality may be actual or imagined, but the end result is the same: People resent activities and responsibilities that are foisted upon them by others. Yet they feel powerless to take a stand.

Their covert stonewalling is often accompanied by an inner dialogue that attempts to justify their actions: “She’s always telling me what to do.” Or, “He’ll go ballistic if I tell him I don’t like his idea.”

At the same time, they’re uncomfortable with any form of confrontation. They might worry about hurting someone’s feelings or crumble when another person gets angry. Hence, they go to great lengths to smile and smooth things over, even when they’re seething inside.

Passive aggression can even be situational. A college student may unwillingly conform to her parents’ pressures yet be confident and assertive around her teachers and classmates.

People become passive aggressive for a variety of reasons. Cultural norms toward negative feelings are ambivalent. Some families subtly forbid the expression of anger. People may feel more powerful when they hold their emotions in check. Others are naturally shy and have trouble holding their own in social settings.

As you’d imagine, such an indirect and dishonest style of communication is hard on relationships. Problems are nearly impossible to resolve, and members are frequently confused by the other’s words and intentions.

Fortunately, passive aggression is treatable. With insight and support you can communicate more directly and effectively at home and in the work place.

Linda Lewis Griffith’s column is special to The Tribune. She is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

How do deal with passive-aggressive loved ones

  • Stay calm. Resist the urge to get angry at them. They’re already having problems with confrontation. You’ll only push them farther away.
  • Be complimentary. Express admiration or gratitude for something that they’ve done. You’ll let them know you care while setting the stage for a productive interaction.
  • Share your observations about their passive behavior. “Every time I talk about traveling to see my family you complain about airfares and how difficult it is to fly. Yet you have no trouble flying to go on your surf trips. It seems you don’t want to go visit them. Is that accurate?”
  • Enlist their input. You’ll learn how they view the situation, and you’ll give them equal power for solving it.
  • Be ready for their excuses. In their minds they can justify their behavior. Don’t try to prove them wrong. Simply listen to and acknowledge what they say. Thank them for discussing it.
  • Back off. Once you’ve stated your case let it go. Pushing too hard will create resistance.
  • Approach the issue again whenever it crops. The problem won’t go away overnight. Be willing to address it repeatedly until you see a change.