How Do I Deal With A Passive-Aggressive Partner?

Passive-Aggressive couple in Los Angeles

What Does It Mean To Be Passive-Aggressive?

“You’re just being so passive-aggressive.”

We hear people say this fairly often, but what does it really mean? Passive-aggressive behavior is when someone says or does something that on the face of it seems innocuous, or even kind, but there is a “hidden” agenda that is negative. It is aggressive behavior that wears the mask of being passive.

It is important to understand that the person who is being passive-aggressive is usually driven by subconscious forces to do so; they are unaware in their conscious mind of the true implications of what they are doing—unaware that they are being manipulative and unkind. People who do this kind of thing on purpose are generally simply referred to as “manipulative”.

What does passive-aggressive behavior look like?

Passive-aggressive man in Los Angeles

Two of the most common passive-aggressive behaviors are forgetfulness and tardiness. “Oh, I didn’t realize…”, says the passive-aggressive person after they say or do something hurtful. “I never would have done that if I’d known…”. This begs the question: Why didn’t they know?

When someone is the victim of passive-aggressive behavior, they are usually left with a confusing and awful feeling. They feel wronged, unappreciated, or unimportant. They also feel guilty for feeling that way—after all, their partner didn’t realize they were being hurtful, right?

Sometimes the partners of passive-aggressive people will be raging, frustrated all the time at being misunderstood, and angry that they are always put in the position of being the “bad” one.

What can I do if my partner is passive-aggressive?

If your partner is passive-aggressive, they may be pretty comfortable remaining that way. Many passive-aggressive people have no real desire to change. “After all”, the passive-aggressive person thinks, “most people think I am nice and friendly—only my partner is constantly mad at me, so it must be their fault, right?” They don’t have long-term healthy relationships, but they put the responsibility for that on the other person.

On the other hand, some people really want their relationship to be healthy, and they are interested in changing their own behavior in order to make that possible. If your partner is passive-aggressive, but is willing to go to couples therapy or individual therapy, that can be one of the best ways for them to learn new and healthier ways to interact.

What are some ways we can learn to communicate better?

Changing long-standing ways of relating to others is a tough job, and incredibly difficult to do on your own, no matter what those patterns are. If you or your partner behaves in a passive-aggressive way (and everybody does this sometimes, so we can all benefit from learning to do things differently!) here are some things to keep in mind:

Listening to your partner in Los Angeles

1. Listen.

If your partner is hurt or upset by something you said or did, take time to listen to their feelings—even if you don’t think you did anything wrong. Even if you think they are being overly sensitive.

Listen with the sole goal of understanding what their experience is. Ask questions if you need to, in order to more fully understand.

2. Reflect

Tell them in your own words what you believe they are feeling, and ask if you have gotten it right.

4. Don’t get defensive.

You are not agreeing that they are right, you are simply showing them that their feelings are important to you. You don’t have to actually discuss the issue at all, simply hear the feelings.

How can I communicate with my passive-aggressive partner so they will listen to me?

If you are the partner of someone who behaves passive-aggressively on a regular basis, here’s what you can do:

1.  Be kind to yourself first!

When you are hurt by something they said or did, first acknowledge to yourself that your hurt feelings are completely legitimate. This will go a long way toward dissipating your anger, and helping you keep your focus on the real issue—your hurt feelings.

2. Use the listening exercise

Ask your partner if they’d be willing to listen to your feelings without responding. Just to listen and then paraphrase in their own words so that you know they have understood you.

3. Stick to feelings only.

Do not discuss the issue at hand. Do not accuse them of being mean/thoughtless/whatever.

It should start like this: “I feel ___________ right now.” Be sure you can start with this short sentence. If you can’t, then that means you are not ready yet to discuss your feelings; you probably are still angry and trying to get them to acknowledge what they’ve done. If the sentence you come up with is, “I feel like you are being ______...”, then you have not yet identified your actual feelings. Any sentence that has “like” after “I feel” is about to express a thought, not a feeling. Stick to feelings, because thoughts may be right or wrong, and can be discussed and challenged. Feelings just need to be understood and acknowledged, they are not right or wrong.

As much as you can, state your feelings in a way that leaves your partner out of the equation. Here’s an example: “I feel anxious when I am afraid we are going to be very late to meet our friends” Notice there is no “you” in this sentence. If you said “I am upset when you are late coming home” it would be much easier for your partner to get defensive, and then there would probably be a discussion/argument about why they “had” to come home late, or why you are being “unreasonable”.

Do your very best to phrase your feeling so that you take full responsibility for feeling it, even if your feeling was triggered by something they said or did.

4. Give them a chance to acknowledge your feelings.

This is what it looks like when someone properly acknowledges their partner’s feelings:

“I hear you saying that you are hurt when I am late coming home on a day we have something planned, and when I am very late you are worried that something has happened. You are angry that something fun like a date ends up leaving you feeling bad before it even begins. You are also feeling anxious because you don’t like having to explain this to me, and you’re afraid I won’t understand and will say something that makes you feel even worse. Did I get that right?”

The best response to this is simply, “Yes you did. Thank you so much for listening so carefully.”

Again, be sure to avoid these traps:

DO NOT DISCUSS THE ISSUE. (eg. Partner arriving home late)

DO NOT ACCUSE! (“You are so thoughtless!)

DO NOT MAKE YOUR PARTNER RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR FEELINGS! “You make me so upset when you come home late” Avoid the phrase, “you make me” altogether!

This way of talking about feelings can be pretty tough to master—don’t be fooled by its simplicity! In my experience of dealing with this passive-aggressive dynamic, this is the only real way to create some healing and change this dynamic to one that is healthy and supportive.

Do you need some more help learning to communicate effectively with your passive-aggressive partner?

Happy couple in Los Angeles

If you need some help dealing with a passive-aggressive dynamic, couples therapy will help you learn to do this kind of exercise in a safe and supportive environment. If your partner doesn’t want to go to therapy, individual therapy can also be helpful, even if your partner is the one who is passive-aggressive. If you change your way of behaving and responding, your partner will have to change also, one way or another. One person can initiate the change necessary to create a better, healthier, more loving relationship.

If this resonates with you, and you’d like to have a free consultation about how therapy can help you with your specific situation, just send me an email at, call me at 323-999-1537, or click on the button below. I look forward to talking with you!