Communication is a vital part of family cohesiveness and sharing. However, it’s not always smooth sailing and poor communication is often the result of personality styles that either clash with your own or are just plain challenging to get along with. While you can be compassionate and understanding, it’s important to not be bulldozed by the sly manipulations of the passive aggressive relative. The passive aggressive personality type reveals a person unwilling to deal with resentment, anger and other negative emotions in a straightforward or upfront way. Instead, the passive aggressive relative will try to rely on complaining, being argumentative and acting unappreciated as a way to “interact”. Of course, it’s no healthy way to interact and you’ll need to find some solid strategies to avoid being sucked into the passive-aggressive vortex.
Identifying Passive Aggressive Behavior
- Observe your relatives. See if you can identify the passive aggressive behaviors they’re displaying. Be careful to take into account occasional lapses––from time to time we all behave passive-aggressively for such reasons as stress, exhaustion, fear or lack of assertiveness. The behavior becomes problematic when it’s the constant way in which this person communicates and treats others. Some signs to look for include:
- What is this relative saying? Complaining is a typical sign of passive-aggressive behavior. For example, complaints about being unappreciated and complaints about their own misfortunes tend to be commonplace.
- What is this relative doing? On the one hand, the relative seems to agree with you, then lo and behold, you discovered he or she went and did things completely the opposite!
- How does the relative respond to new information or to the choices that you (or your siblings, cousins, etc.) have made in your life? Feigning disinterest or even outright ignoring the news, or criticizing or scorning your achievements under layers of “wit”, sarcasm or joke cracking can be a sign of passive aggressive behavior. The passive aggressive tends to distrust the success of others and will do a lot to downplay it or suggest that the success was a result of luck or cheating, rather than accepting that someone might have worked hard for it. It’ll all be very subtly done though, so don’t expect outright scorn.
- Does your relative express disapproval or withhold positive reinforcement? The inability to give praise or acknowledge a job well done is a sign of resentment, a key underpinning of passive aggressive behavior.
- Have you noticed the relative making snide comments but then acting as if he or she never said such a thing? Or even going so far as to accuse you of misinterpreting what has been said?
- Is your relative being argumentative over almost everything you say or suggest? A lot of “back chat” which insists that they have things worse, know better or shine brighter can make for a very negative pattern. For example, saying such things as: “No, no, no, that’s not the case” or “Well, in my experience, that never happens” or “In my day we didn’t even have that sort of chance and had to work hard for our supper”, etc.
- Does your relative go on and on about how fortunate other people are and how unfortunate he or she is? Does this person use the dreaded words “if only…”, then goes on to explain all that he or she could have done in life if all the stars had aligned correctly? In listening to this type of talk, it can soon feel that this person has an inability to accept that he or she has no responsibility for making beneficial changes in life.
- Ultimately, what is the relative doing that causes you to feel that he or she is using passive aggressive behavior towards you? Most times it is very subtle, although the more a passive aggressive person responds this way, the more it feels “natural” to him or her and the more blatant it can become over time. Determine what you find disturbing about their behavior. Is it that they don’t agree with you, or is it the way they express their disagreement, i.e. gritting their teeth silently, then saying “it’s fine, dear” when you ask them what is wrong?
- Evaluate the motives behind your relative’s behavior. You may or may not know “the grand narrative” behind why your relative behaves passive aggressively but you will probably get enough snippets of what has upset your relative through the things he or she says. This should enable you to start building a bigger picture of what ails the person. Determine what disturbs you about this person’s outlook on life and his or her attitude towards others in the family, especially those who have achieved things that this person feels resentful about.
- Why is the person acting this way? Is it possible that Aunt Flo wanted desperately to be a prima ballerina in her younger years but was too poor and married too young to achieve this ambition, only to see a grandchild doing really well at ballet? Maybe Uncle Georgy wanted to be an astronaut but found studying the needed subjects too arduous, only to find years later that a nephew has been accepted to NASA. These are not excuses, they are ways of understanding the narrative that the relative has built their current reality on.
- Do you think there is an understandable reason behind why your relative might not approve of something that is important to you? In some cases, a passive aggressive person is self-protecting initially from a bad experience but then projects this bad experience on loved ones in the hope of protecting them from a possible bad experience too. It can help to see that a gruff, scolding or nasty comment about your choices being wrong might well be coming from a place of care for you, however misplaced on their own personal bad experience.
- In some cases, the passive aggressive relative is seeking to control you, the situation, the family, etc. This person may feel that his or her place in the family is somehow threatened and that by being passive aggressive, a covert attempt is made to restore the relative’s power over others. There may even be a sense of satisfaction in knowing that their words or behavior causes another distress or second thoughts.
- Another possible motive for passive aggressive behavior is simple jealousy. As with Aunt Flo and Uncle Georgy above, seeing someone else achieve in ways that the relative feels he or she has failed can be devastating and may even self-confirming of long-term failure to pursue dreams. In this case, resentment, bitterness and spite will likely fuel the motive behind the passive aggressive behavior.
- Be aware that one key motive behind passive aggressive behavior is to attack you, bring you down, pour scorn on you or show you up without retaliation coming back on the person. This is why sarcasm, jokes, all-knowing statements and false wisdom will often be used as a way to suggest that “no harm was meant”, even though harm was the full intent.
Using Strategies to Cope with Passive Aggressive Behavior
- Don’t let yourself become a part of the game play. The most important part of dealing with a passive aggressive relative (and family ties do make the emotional heartstrings tug harder), is learning to not get annoyed. Rehearse good thinking patterns in your head before you come into contact with the particular relative again––a little mental role-playing can help you to avoid panicking and giving in to the subtle pressures.
- Tell yourself something like: “Granny is being passive aggressive again. I love her heaps but I won’t let her mess with my head like this anymore. She is bitter about X but that won’t impede me from doing what I have set out to do”. Or, “Jon is being unfair and is trying to sabotage me by saying those things. I know he’s behaving passive aggressively and if I get upset, he’ll get what he wants. It won’t change anything to worry or get annoyed about him. Instead, I’ll either ignore the remarks or stand up for myself.”
- Above all, stay calm. It can be easy to feel agitated or upset but this makes it likely that your response will be emotionally driven rather than calmly considered. Being calm will unnerve the passive aggressive person.
- Confront the relative openly and politely. Once you conclude that passive aggressive behavior is your relative’s way of communicating (or not communicating) with you, and that is bothersome to you, respond. Wait until your relative does or says something passive-aggressive. Then, in a calm and friendly manner, ask “Why do you say that or do that?”. If your relative pretends that he or she didn’t do anything, say “You said or did (repeat what they said or did) just now. Do you not like my idea (or does my story bother you)?”
- Share your own feelings. If your relative denies being bothered by anything, remain calm. Say something like: “Well, when you said or did … this made me feel rejected or silly, and it hurts my feelings.” This is a non-aggressive way to remain open to your relative and show him or her that the passive aggressive behavior matters to you. Your relative will then have to explain his or her actions.
- Often, this is enough to encourage an open explanation or an apology, even if it is put forth in a gruff manner (i.e. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, I just worry about your finances or your future/etc.”, or “You know I love you, I don’t have to say that all the time!”).
- Follow up with “I’m really glad you told me that” or something similar. This is a high-pressure situation for him or her, so appreciate the little steps your relative is taking.
- Don’t let your relative brush you off. If your relative retorts that you are just too sensitive, stand your ground––this sort of retort is a putdown and not reality. Tell your relative that you are genuinely interested in his or her opinion, even if he or she disagrees with you, and that you want your relative to be comfortable sharing thoughts with you. This will probably be surprising to your relative. Many passive-aggressive people act the way they do because they lack the confidence to express themselves and face possible disagreement. If you tell your relative that his or her opinion has value, he or she might drop the defensive behavior and slowly come to interact with you on eye level.
- Always stick to facts. If necessary, keep a record in a small notebook, along with dates and the context.
- Be a broken record. If the relative tries to twist facts, deny things said or done, or blame another, simply reiterate what you know to be the case and what behavior you prefer.
- If needed, learn to be more assertive. Help can be found in such articles as How to be assertive and How to go from passive to assertive.
- Stop relying on this relative to do anything for you. If you are in the situation where this relative has made promises of any kind to you, treat them as empty words. Don’t sit around waiting for a miracle; get on with doing whatever it is you intended to and find other people more dependable to give you any help needed.