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7 Signs of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Photo by Amancay Maahs

The mother who acts like a martyr, manipulating her kids with guilt and helplessness. The cold and distant father, who never “gets mad” but withholds affection and approval to get people to do what he wants. The child who conveniently forgets rules or never follows through on his promises.

These are all forms of passive-aggressive behavior, which can ruin relationships and even lives. Unlike more obvious forms of abuse like yelling and hitting, it is so subtle that people (even the abuser!) aren’t aware that they are emotionally manipulating each other. Unfortunately, it can drive families apart and create such deep wounds that children grow up either resenting their parents or becoming passive-aggressive themselves. Here are some ways of identifying the problem.

1. Passive-aggressive people rarely take a stand.

At first they seem very diplomatic and easy to get along with. They never argue and may even seem eager to please. But that’s all a front. They don’t keep promises, and even if they verbally agree with you, they will do what they want or complain about you behind your back. Or, they will simply shuffle along, and will only act if they are under extreme pressure—like when you finally yell at them or give an ultimatum.

2. Passive-aggressive people are forgetful.

It’s very difficult to trust or rely on passive-aggressive people. They conveniently forget what they don’t want to do. Or, they “punish” you by dropping the ball on an important responsibility, and then apologize profusely so you feel guilty about being disappointed or angry.

People also use passive-aggressive behavior if they have trouble dealing with pressure. Instead of asking for help, or setting boundaries and saying no, they agree to everything but do nothing.

3. Passive-aggressive people like to blame others.

As far as they’re concerned, everything is everybody else’s fault. If they can’t keep a job, it’s because ‘the boss was crazy” or “my wife wasn’t supportive enough” or “my co-workers were out to get me.” They see no reason to change their actions and have no motivation to look for alternatives or opportunities. In fact, passive-aggressive people also tend to carry a lot of resentment and anger (“everyone else ruined my life!”) and like to “punish” others for what happened to them. They also put a lot of pressure on others. As they throw a pity party for themselves, you’re expected to pick up the slack or to make them feel good about themselves. They can also be very critical, because they prefer seeing the faults of others over admitting their own.

4. Passive-aggressive people suppress feelings.

Many of them were raised to hide their feelings. Maybe they were punished when they got angry, or told to “stop crying and act like a man.” So they suppress their real emotions, and have a tendency to either suddenly blow up or to get back at you in subtle ways. For example, a wife may not confront her husband about his cheating, but will quietly undermine his relationship with the kids.

5. Passive-aggressive people are afraid commitment and dependency.

They are often control freaks. They don’t want to admit that they need you or care about you, and usually sabotage relationships. For example, they will find reasons to break up with people, or use ways to retain control over a relationship (such as withholding money, sex or approval) so they don’t feel dependent on others.

6. Passive-aggressive people are insensitive to others’ needs.

Healthy relationships are based on give-and-take, but for passive-aggressive people it’s “all about me.” They may say “I love you” and appear to be compassionate and concerned, but they either forget to follow through, or continue behavior that they know will upset you, or they make you very, very aware of the “sacrifice” they’re making. “Oh, I didn’t go to the conference, which could’ve really helped my career, and I probably won’t get the promotion, but that’s what you want, right?”

7. Passive-aggressive people procrastinate.

They figure out that if they wait long enough, you’ll give up and stop bothering them, or youu’ll forget the promise they made. They also use procrastination as a way of ignoring problems or avoiding fears. For example, they may find ways to put off a project because they’re afraid of failure, or they’ll wistfully talk about their dreams but not actually go for them because they want to continue blaming you for “holding them back.”

Related Questions
  • Ronda

    Very enlightening article!

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  • cr

    My spouse has accused me of passive-aggressive behavior. I contend that, in many cases, I simply find a particular task unnecessary, or a certain activity undesirable. When I do not agree with my spouse’s viewpoint, my spouse begins to cry about it. In these not infrequent cases, I feel more like the victim of passive-aggressive behavior, an emotional manipulation. What I do or do not do remains clear and out in the open, not an emotional manipulation. The response often comes in the form of emotional manipulation. So, am I passive-aggressive? Is my spouse? Both? Neither?

  • Robert in Toronto

    CR (May 10)

    Read the book “In Sheep’s Clothing”

    You are being covert-aggressive. That is agreeing to & simply ignoring the undesired task.

    Your wife is being passive-aggressive with her “water works. Take the bull by the horn & tell her to “dry up”. I did this to my ex-wife, I got so sick & tired of this emotionally unstable response.. manipulation on unemotional subjects (another man might have simply started beating her).

    No one need get hit. If you have an unresolved debate, resolve it with cold rational cost effective logic. If the woman refuses & keeps up her crying, demand that she see a doctor about mood stabilizing drugs (or simply “dry up”) because this form of manipulation is deceitful & will destroy your relationship.