Time to get REAL.
Theoretically, asking your husband or wife to empty the dishwasher should be totally devoid of drama or tension. It's just one of many chores necessary to keep your home functioning, right? However, with a passive-aggressive personality, any situation has the potential to go from the trivial to emotional combat.
I speak from experience, as It started with the simple question from my wife, Ellyn, "Pete did you empty the dishwasher?" I didn't respond but begrudgingly left the couch and headed for the kitchen, knowing I had agreed to complete the task before that moment. I hadn't put more than three coffee cups into the cupboard when Ellyn informed me I wasn't unloading the dishwasher properly.
"Oh, really? Just what do you suggest?" I asked sarcastically. Ellyn, stunningly oblivious, responded as though I had some interest in learning a better way. "Empty the bottom rack first so dishes don't get dripped on when you empty the top rack." I fired the second salvo of sarcasm when thanking her for the lessons on dishwasher liberation.
Many times Ellyn has gotten mad at me for not following through with an agreement and this was the real problem for her. After I'd blown numerous promises, she would get tense in her voice and face while expressing her frustration — understandably so, of course.
So far, this is pretty normal stuff for most marriages, but I would take it to new heights. I would criticize Ellyn for the way she got mad at me or I'd change the topic. The problem became her unreasonable way of expressing disappointment instead of my broken agreement.
This tricky psychological maneuver took absolutely no effort, thinking or planning on my part ... just pure instinct. The implication was that if she would just change the way she expressed her frustration, the problem would be solved. Better yet, if she just had more patience, I would eventually get around to getting it done.
Poor Ellyn, she was doomed if she got angry and doomed if she said nothing.
Welcome to the crazy world of the passive-aggressive partner! And although I wasn't a full fledged, card-carrying passive-aggressive personality, I had the qualifications to join as an honorary member of the club.
Here's a big secret when it comes this problem: passive-aggressive behavior is a very difficult challenge for couples. The passive-aggressive person is a pain to live with and very hard to change. Passive-aggressive people are typically hypersensitive to actual or perceived criticism. Especially when they don't follow through with promises. They have a ton of good reasons for not following through with crucial agreements.
For example, I could blame my failure to complete agreements on ADD. I might say that I suffer from a condition of temporary and intermittent cognitive slippage.
This is a problem that affects both partners, but in different ways. The passive-aggressive person generally feels they are under assault and no matter what they do, they cannot please their partner.
The other partner believes they cannot depend on the passive-aggressive mate to reliably follow through. Even if I'm 80 percent reliable, as I would sometimes point out to Ellyn, she has no idea what the 80 percent will be or when it will be completed. This screws up the logistical part of being an effective team, which supports being an effective couple.
So what causes this aggravating problem that painfully affects both partners in different ways? Most passive-aggressive folks have two things in common:
- A highly critical parent or parents ... resulting in a high sensitivity to being judged on performance.
- A lot of painful disappointments in life ... resulting in a reflexive coping mechanism that severely restricts their hopes and desires in life. Minimizing desires is a subconscious attempt to avoid getting hopes up and then dashed which triggers a warehouse of painful disappointments stored in the emotional brain.
It becomes much easier for passive-aggressive people to say what they don't want, rather than what they do want. It's like running life's race with your shoelaces tied. But the frustration of living a life of pinched desires leaks out in being "obstructionistic" — to their spouse, therapist, boss, and anyone else that might have a say, or at least a suggestion, about what they should do. All in all, nobody is happy.
Passive-aggressive behavior can show up in other subtle ways. Hard core passive-aggressive people rarely initiate doing leisure joint activities, buying things, going places, celebrating special occasions, planning surprises or giving compliments; they often have a hard time buying gifts.
So, what can you do? This is a complex question with no easy answer. Find out by visiting our couples blog, The Couples Institute for more insights and strategies to make your relationship the best it can be.
This article was originally published at Couples Institute. Reprinted with permission from the author.