Thursday, January 4, 2007


Yes, what could be so bad about passive aggressive behavior? The passive aggressive is not usually violent. By his very nature he is afraid of direct conflict, either physical or verbal, and will avoid it at all costs. Thus the passive aggressive is probably not going to punch you or shoot you or stab you in the back with a real knife. And only rarely will he attack you with words to your face, perhaps when he has been drinking or using drugs and his inhibitions aren’t fully functional. No, the best he can normally do by way of verbal attack is to employ the weapon of sarcasm and veiled ridicule. He might, for example, speak ill of you to his friends at a party even when he knows that you are in earshot, but never directly to your face.

Distinctions Called For

Some distinctions are called for. Living under a harsh political system, such as the byproducts of communism and fascism, the individual citizen will find it necessary to assume a passive public face for his own and his family’s protection while he inwardly longs for freedom. So too in the work situation in even a democratic country, many examples of repression of the human spirit are in evidence. The employee may decide to tolerate what is a thoroughly stultifying situation for sake of his own and his family’s survival. The adoption of passive behavior in these cases are decisions based on choice and not automatic responses triggered by psychological preconditioning.

In cases of psychological preconditioning, the degree of passivity and the degree of aggressive insistence on passivity may vary widely. On one extreme is the person who becomes near catatonic in the presence of an aggressively hostile and abusive other, say an alcoholic parent or spouse—a mean drunk. This person is frozen. He cannot act, even to protect himself. On the other extreme is the person who seethes with hostility when dealing with others, hostility that is just below the surface and barely concealed.

Ruins Marriages

It is important for the writer to point out that he has himself succumbed to passive aggressive behavior in his own life and also has been on the receiving end of such behavior. Thus he has seen its destructive effects first hand. Passive aggressive behavior ruins marriages. Passive aggressive behavior prevents parents and children from sustaining a healthy supportive relationship throughout life, and it has the same destructive effect on other relationships. Passive aggressive behavior squeezes out healthy emotions. Passive aggressive behavior is dishonest. The pain for the person interacting with the passive aggressive is the unsettling sense that the other is concealing something important, that something is going on below the surface, that “that something” is hostile, but he will not tell you what it is.

For the truly aggressive passive aggressive, the primary weapon is his passivity, and he is as aggressive as he can be in using that passivity to exact his revenge. And it often is revenge that is very important to him. Though the self he presents to the world is controlled and nonviolent, inside he may be quite violent. The restrained exterior is the mask for the turmoil within. And he may be the arch plotter. His mind is fixated on that time when he will in fact execute his great moment of punishment.

The Ultimate Punishment

He is administering small punishments through his passivity now, but the time may come when he will administer the ultimate punishment, he tells himself. He will tell you off and leave you if you are a spouse. He will finally quit instead of just thinking about it if you are a boss. If he has some other relationship with you, he will be content to blow you off or ignore you or keep you at arm’s length, perhaps for an entire lifetime —anything to hurt you—but for heaven's sake, he is not going to tell you off. Not now!


If underlying his mental fabric is deep seated disease, then the great break may in fact be accompanied by the kind of violence that hitherto seemed so out of character and which we will hear about on the TV news or read about in the local news section of the local newspaper, the article accompanied by the large sensational headline. In these reports, at least someone, perhaps a neighbor, will be quoted as saying, “He seemed like such a nice person—quiet, respectful, considerate, kind. You never would have guessed that he would ever do anything like this.”

Where does this behavior come from? Perhaps he learned it as a child dealing with an alcoholic or otherwise abusive parent. As a powerless child, he learned to cope with the all powerful abusive parent by masking his feelings. He learned it was better not to express what he was thinking, not to defend himself, but always to appear conciliatory, accommodating, even happy and always in control.

Acting Out

Then quite unexpectedly the inner turmoil that was really going on inside him would come out. He would suddenly act out. He would set a fire in his best friend’s house or he would inflict pain on a defenseless pet. Later as he became an adult and faced the stresses of daily life he would fall back into the pattern learned as a child. Distressed by his wife’s frigidity and alcoholism, he would begin to plan his exit from the relationship, but he would never deal with the issues that bothered him head on then and there. Not now. He couldn’t confront. He couldn’t express his anger. Such emotions were too dangerous. They were too threatening to the child inside of him. Express them, and he might be hurt--physically hurt.

Next time: Meet the passive aggressive’s kissing cousin, the pleaser. Have a very healthy, productive, and satisfying new year, everyone.

Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Alan Saft

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