How To End Passive-Aggressive Behavior In A Marriage

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist By Weena Cullins, LCMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Weena Cullins, LCMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist with over 15 years of experience working with individuals, couples, and families. Her clinical advice has been featured at NBC News, The Huffington Post, Insider, Redbook, and many more mainstream media publications.
passive aggressive husband and relationship

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Trust, open and honest communication, and conflict resolution are the holy trifecta of healthy marriages. Many couples enjoy the ease they experience in these areas early in their relationship. When the honeymoon ends and more differences begin to surface, it's not uncommon for one or both partners to become passive-aggressive. Not sure what it means to be passive-aggressive? Let's explore what it looks like and discuss helpful ways to put an end to this behavior in your marriage.

What does passive-aggressive mean?

Being passive-aggressive means that you avoid direct confrontation by using less direct forms of communication to express negative emotions. Indirectly hurting a partner or refusing to meet their needs are forms of passive-aggressive behavior, along with pouting, procrastinating, making backhanded comments, using silence when a response is warranted, and other behaviors that convey negative feelings without directly stating them. Using this communication style is unhealthy because it sends mixed messages to your partner, which could lead to confusion, frustration, and emotional distrust.

People can be passive-aggressive in marriages and relationships, and it's also sometimes seen in friendships or even professional settings. But this lack of communication can ruin relationships if it endures.

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What causes passive-aggressive behavior? 

There are many reasons a spouse would use passive-aggression instead of honest and direct communication. Some partners were raised in environments where this indirect form of communication was used on a normal basis. Others may have experienced rejection in the wake of being transparent in previous relationships, which discouraged them from taking a more direct approach to communicate their feelings.

Even without prior experiences that would promote passive-aggression, a partner might lean on passive-aggressive behavior if they perceive it's unsafe to express negative emotions in their marriage. Some partners even believe it's a safe way to get what they want without sparking confrontation, while others aren't even aware that their behavior is passive-aggressive.

Examples of passive-aggressive behavior in a marriage:

1. Ignoring texts and emails.

Sometimes people will intentionally choose not to respond to time-sensitive emails or texts as a way of communicating disapproval, frustration, or lack of interest. If you know your partner is usually timely about responding to other people's emails and texts but falls short when it comes to yours, this may be a passive-aggressive way to send you a message about their feelings. Being noncommittal can be a way that some people communicate that they don't want to engage with their partner's needs or request or that they have negative feelings about the topic at hand that they're not expressing. In turn, you may feel ignored by the silence that lingers between your written communications with each other.

How to deal with it: Refrain from accusing your partner of purposefully ignoring or putting off responding to your written requests. Instead, make space for your partner to process their feelings. Ask your partner what comes up for them when they receive your emails or texts. You may find that a deeper issue exists, such as feelings of anxiety, pressure, or resentment. Listen with an open mind, and ask for alternative solutions to making time-sensitive decisions or getting communication when you need it.

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2. Avoiding coming to bed.

Partners who feel emotionally disconnected or disgruntled may stop coming to bed at the same time as their partner in an effort to express their feelings. This is also a way that partners with infants and toddlers subtly take power back if they've been tasked with helping the kids with their bedtime routine. A passive-aggressive partner who "accidentally falls asleep" in their child's bed and refuses to go to their own bed may blame their consistent absence on exhaustion while silently holding resentment inside. It may just be exhaustion, but if you and your partner aren't connecting sexually at any other time, then there may be more to their behavior.

How to deal with it: Give your partner an opportunity to come clean about their alternative sleeping habits. If you haven't expressed that you miss your partner's presence in the bedroom and would like for them to sleep with you at night, now is the time to do so. If they continue to consistently sleep apart from you, then ask your partner what would need to change about the nightly routine for them to sleep in the bed with you. It is OK to ask them direct questions about their sexual desire and any concerns they may have that keep them from wanting to connect with you at night. If they reveal a deeper issue, listen respectfully and determine if both of you could benefit from seeking additional help around these issues.

3. Consistently skipping events with in-laws.

Partners may consistently tell you that they don't have a problem with your side of the family, but if they consistently show up late to events or fail to show up at all, it's possible that they are being passive-aggressive. It's not uncommon for some partners to avoid hard talks about their spouse's family while showing signs that there's an elephant in the room. You and your family may feel slighted by their spotty attendance at gatherings.

How to deal with it: Addressing this issue can be tricky since your partner's behavior affects your feelings as well as other family members'. Initially refrain from discussing other family members' feelings, which could cause your partner to feel attacked. Ask your partner about their overall experiences at family functions and allow them to give you uninterrupted feedback. Use "I" statements when you discuss your experience of their behavior. Explain how it makes you feel when they don't confront their reasons for hanging back from family functions head-on. If you discover that deeper issues exist for your partner surrounding your family, express that you are willing to address them. Patience goes a long way.

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4. Refusing to check in before scheduling personal time.

Some partners revolt against sharing their time with their spouse by ignoring the joint calendar. Even if they participate in creating the weekly schedule, they may show passive-aggression by scheduling personal activities during times that conflict with a shared activity. Partners who consistently do this may not know a different way to express feeling frustrated or overscheduled.

How to deal with it: If your partner consistently fails to honor your joint commitments or ignores times that you've blocked off on the schedule for yourself, then there may be a deeper issue surrounding scheduling brewing beneath the surface. Invite your partner to have an open dialogue about needing alone time versus couple/family time. You may discover that your partner isn't satisfied with the current division of time. Another common issue that some partners face is adjusting their thinking to include their family versus thinking solely of their own schedule. Instead of a passive-aggressive gesture, it's an issue of consideration. It may take time for some new spouses to adopt a team-centered approach. However, if your spouse consistently struggles with self-centered thinking, then you may want to address this issue in a therapeutic setting.

Dealing with a passive-aggressive spouse.

Experiencing passive-aggressive behavior from your spouse can make it difficult to maintain the initial connection you may have shared. It's easy to become frustrated or confused by your partner's indirect communication and resistant behaviors. However, it's likely that an emotional injury exists somewhere beneath the surface that may be contributing to their conflict-avoidant style. Some partners may not even be aware of how problematic these tactics can be, especially if they have worked to get them what they want while helping them avoid confrontation in other settings.

Take the time to make sure your partner knows what being passive-aggressive looks like and how it's affecting you and your relationship. If it's too difficult to move to a healthier place of communication without help, then seek the assistance of a trusted professional or therapist. Ultimately, creating and maintaining a safe place is the key to honest and direct communication that is free of passive-aggressive behaviors.

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