I'm passive aggressive. How do I fix that?
September 25, 2016 10:14 AM   Subscribe

I've had passive aggressive tendencies my whole life, but it's taken me awhile to realize just how destructive my behavior is for my relationships. I want to stop, but I don't know how.

One of my parents is very passive aggressive, and their behavior always drove me bonkers growing up. Now I find myself doing to very same thing to my partner, and I'd like to knock it off.

I'm never passive aggressive towards strangers or at work--I tend to only "reveal" this tendency around people I am very close, such as certain family members or my partner. I behave passive aggressively when I'm stressed--I'm guessing because I've learned that being outright aggressive in these situations is not acceptable.

An example of a recent situation where I later realized I was behaving super passive aggressively: I'm stressed from studying for exams, and our apartment is also a mess, which increases my stress level. I'm also annoyed because my partner (we live together--let's call him B) has been doing fun leisure activities (TV, video games) all day while I've been studying. I take a break and go into the kitchen/living room area and start cleaning. I wash all of the dishes, empty and reload the dishwasher, tidy the counters, etc. It takes maybe 15 minutes. The whole time I'm fuming because B has been laying on the couch within eyeshot while I'm cleaning and hasn't said a thing. When I'm done, I leave the room and B gets up and follows me and asks what's wrong. At this point I think steam might be coming from my ears, but instead of telling him that I wished he would have offered to help with some of the cleaning (either right then or when he was done with his activity) because having a messy apartment stresses me out and I'm already stressed from school, I ask him to take the dog out and oh it would be nice if he would just do that without being asked. Needless to say, that did not go over well, and we spent the next two hours not talking.

I've tried to reduce the amount and frequency of things that seem to increase my stress and therefore increase the chances I'll behave nastily. I'm working on being more communicative about when and why I'm stressed (which feels like 75% of the time right now with grad school) and I've instituted a weekly sit down where we plan who's cooking which nights, who's in charge of midday dog walking, grocery shopping lists, and what social activities we've got planned. I recently showed B the emotional labor checklist, because I do feel like the lion's share of emotional labor gets dumped on me. Divying up some of those duties has helped me somewhat.

I always realize after I've said or done something passive aggressive that I was behaving like an ass, but I need help stopping that impulse. What's a better way of dealing with my frustration in those situations?
posted by gumtree to Human Relations (28 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
I have dealt with similar tendencies in myself (especially when stressed). It's been tough to change, but here are the things that I think have been most successful:

1. When I start to get frustrated, taking a deep breath and reminding myself that I am being unreasonable.

2. When my partner is lazing around and I am cleaning up, etc., thinking of the times that he cleaned up by himself when I wasn't home, and I came home to a nice apartment.

3. Reminding myself that people do things for each other out of love, and my behavior will ultimately have the opposite reaction that I want.

4. If I am stressed and feel on edge, telling my partner ahead of time that I'm feeling stressed and not in a good mood, and if I seem snappy I apologize in advance (this one I feel helps my partner not react to my aggression, which in turn diffuses the situation, and even though it really is not fair and is a big ask, has been incredibly helpful).

Generally, I feel like having lists and schedules just makes it all worse because if boyfriend misses a deadline, I have something to be pissed about. If instead we plan to both work towards the common good of a clean home, happy pet, and good relationship, we do more things out of love than out of obligation, and appreciate each other for each thing we do for each other (instead of treating those things as the bare minimum). It makes for a much more peaceful dynamic.

Good luck!
posted by DoubleLune at 10:29 AM on September 25, 2016 [12 favorites]

Instead of telling him you'd have appreciated help after the fact, I just want to point out that you could also have asked for his help while you were doing the cleaning.

I'm not saying that to criticize you, or even to say that this would have been the best approach within your current relationship, just to note that there's an even more straightforward approach you didn't mention. Over the years I've realized that many of my most bizarre behaviors are the product of dealing with or imitating behavior on a parent's part that were designed to allow him to avoid direct confrontation in every way possible, but still manipulate every situation so that he always got his way and so that his preferences were the ones that mattered.
posted by XMLicious at 10:34 AM on September 25, 2016 [44 favorites]

Use you words and say exactly what you want without embellishment, as simply as you can. Run it through your head first and think about what it is you want to happen and throw every thing else out. "Will you do some cleaning up around here? I'm pretty busy with studying and it's stressing me out." Eliminate "I shouldn't have to" "always" "never" and the like from your conversations, and your thoughts if you can.

It's often about avoiding confrontation, and it seldom works out that way. You're having an argument in your head that the other person knows nothing about. Be clear, simple, and direct.
posted by bongo_x at 10:36 AM on September 25, 2016 [38 favorites]

I am prone to these kinds of feelings especially regarding household duties (and it's nowhere near fairly distributed either, which is rage-inducing enough) and I have to make myself wait until a different calmer time and address it. Like when I feel the boil-over coming, the rule is I have to put a pin in it until later.

This is also a pretty effective rule for not doubling-down when I myself am accused of something I am, in fact, being an asshole about: when the feelings of NUH UH well up, make a note and walk it off to come back and examine later.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:39 AM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Practicing mindfulness will definitely help. Actively thinking about your thoughts, instead of just thinking them. Start narrating your emotions in your head, even happy ones. "I feel happy now. I feel happy because the cashier said she liked my outfit. That makes me feel good because I put a lot of time into getting ready. I like being recognized for my efforts"

And then you'll start to notice a pattern of reasons your mood is most affected by people outside of yourself-it looks like you've already noticed that stress is a huge trigger for you. Right now your brain is on autopilot, and your autopilot has learned, from your parent, how it should react to those situations. You need to be in active pilot mode to retrain your habits.

"I'm angry right now. I'm angry because I'm stressed. I'm stressed because I am studying and now I have to clean the kitchen. It's not fair that I have to do it while I'm so busy. I wouldn't be mad if my partner had done it for me or offers to help. I want him to notice my struggles and try and alleviate some of the burden. I am going to tell him what I want him to know so I will not be angry" and then initiate a dialogue along the lines of "Hey, B. School has me wicked stressed. This mess is going to make me break. Do you mind helping out for a bit so we can get it under control?"

posted by FirstMateKate at 10:55 AM on September 25, 2016 [9 favorites]

Dump the passive part and get aggressive about what you want. That doesn't mean violence, it means knowing very well what your boundaries, limits, and expectations of relationships are.

When someone fobs you off with excuse after excuse or stomps all over expectations that they know are important to you, or otherwise constantly belittles what really matters to you, they are telling you -- clearly -- that they feel comfortable taking advantage or running roughshod over you. PA is the result of swallowed rage. Don't let it get to that point. Speak your mind, and when displeased, articulate it clearly. The longer you permit your values to be throttled the more likely the relationship will never change.

We've all seen old, old marriages that are dead inside and out because one partner stomps the other, while the other is too disgusted or convinced nothing will change to clearly articulate the problem. If after clear and polite communication no one is changing course, that's the likely outcome. Don't Let it Happen to You.
posted by melissa may at 11:22 AM on September 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

I and my partner are both in grad school, so one or both of us can be super stressed out on any given day (most likely me). Like you, we are figuring out more equitable ways to handle household chores, but I'm still more often the one to notice what needs to be done. I agree with the folks who are suggesting you speak up in the moment. I used to squash irritation, telling myself "it's no big deal" but then found that I stockpiled resentment into a massive arsenal. Two other suggestions.
- Be realistic. Some days you are going to be in a stressed out frenzy and react poorly to small frustrations. This will happen. The best thing we've found for this is a humorous acknowledgment (we've developed a repertoire of inside jokes about bad moods and bad behavior) and a baseline understanding that taking out our frustration on each other (however unwarranted) is actually part of living together as a couple. It doesn't mean that it's nice or that I shouldn't apologize for being an asshole though.
- Experiment with how and when chores get done. I was getting grouchy about the fact that I am 98% likely to be the first one awake and thus the coffee maker by default. Now we make coffee at night when we have a post-dinner snack. It's also a chance to do dishes, put away things. Since I actually prefer to drink iced coffee most mornings, it's great to have a french press carafe full of room temperature coffee to work with, instead of a piping hot freshly made batch. But the best part is this shared time that combines chores with treats (french bread pizza, ice cream, etc).
posted by spamandkimchi at 12:17 PM on September 25, 2016

When I'm inclined towards passive aggressiveness, it's usually because I am secretly afraid that my direct requests for things are likely to be met with a rejection -- either explicitly or implicitly. That is, I won't ask for what I need or say how I really feel because I am subconsciously convinced that these things don't or won't really matter.

A good partner will hear you when you say "I am stressed and would like help," and step in. A good partner will be thinking, at least some of the time, about what things must look like from your perspective, and they will try to be a giving resource without your direct request in the first place -- not necessarily every time, mind you (they have to manage the interface between their inner life and your shared lives, too, after all), but with some reliable predictability.

It might be helpful for you to figure out if you're afraid to ask for what you want or need because you're afraid of rejection -- and if that fear is a) founded on a real weakness in your relationship, or b) if that fear is based on your own individual sense that you don't somehow deserve to be in a relationship where you can ask for and have your needs met or in a relationship with a partner who thinks about and acts on your needs without your prompting.
posted by pinkacademic at 12:38 PM on September 25, 2016 [36 favorites]

I think passive aggressive behavior grows out of fear of the fact that the stakes are so high in close relationships. This winds up being corrosive because it means you basically accept the assumption that big problems cannot be resolved, so no point in even addressing them.

There are a couple of things that need to happen: 1) Have a cow sooner, about smaller issues, before it has grown so large and 2) accept the reality that people who are very seriously involved have to hash things out if the relationship is to be healthy.

The scary thing about hashing things out is that really dealing with the big issues risks the possibility that you will uncover a deal breaker. Passive aggressive types seem to prefer to keep their head in the sand because they would rather be in a bad relationship than be alone. But putting up with something shitty or being alone are not your only options.

It might help to read some negotiating books and maybe sme other books about communication issues. I frequently recommend "Getting to Yes" and I have repeatedly seen some book about different love languages recommended here. You also might benefit from books like "The seven habits of highly effective people."

Learning to communicate effectively with people and how to solve problems effectively in a win/win fashion is probably the single best antidote to being passive aggressive because it gives you a path out of choosing which shitty answer you find least objectionable.
posted by Michele in California at 12:43 PM on September 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

Tell your partner just what you're telling us here - you have noticed that you're acting in a way that you don't like, and that you're working on fixing that, and ask him to give you a little support and understanding while you work that out. And then, whenever you catch yourself acting that way, you stop, and talk to him about it. "damn, I'm doing it again! I'm angry and stressed and I've just lashed out instead of asking calmly for what I want" And he'll say it's ok, let's figure out how to make you feel better. Remember, in your example he did come and ask you what was wrong - he wanted to help! Once you have done this a few times you're going to get better and better at spotting the behaviour, and you'll realize from his supportive reaction that he's on your side and you don't need to put yourself in an adversarial position. As you catch it earlier and earlier, you'll eventually be able to stop even before you start. I think a lot of conflict in relationships comes from the human tendency of not admitting when we are wrong. In practice, however, being able to back up and say "crap, I wasn't right there, sorry, let's try that again" is a hugely liberating and powerful tool! it's like a rewind button that you can press and go back to the moment before you did a foolish thing, and do it again in a more sensible way.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:50 PM on September 25, 2016 [5 favorites]

My partner and I have a similar situation to your "working all day, took a break to clean, other person didn't help" example. We both work from home. I'm also working on a temporary creative project that takes a lot of my free time and involves intense deadlines. Thus I have really not had time for domestic chores in the past few weeks. One of two things tends to happen: I take a lunch break only to find that the kitchen is trashed, there are no clean dishes, etc. and he hasn't thought to pick up the slack at all (wherein I get upset), OR he starts cleaning but I'm too busy with other stuff to help out (wherein he gets upset).

Our Not Passive Aggressive way to handle this is for the upset person to use their words. This could mean asking the other person to pitch in rather than doing it all yourself while fuming that the other person didn't just know to get to work. Or it could mean expressing that you are upset by x or y aspect of the domestic chore arrangement, and talking about your expectations and what could go better next time. For example we just had a big conversation about how my poor time management means that I don't make space for domestic chores, when I probably could fit them in if I tried.

In general, I think asking for what you want or telling the other person what your expectations are kills passive aggression about 90% of the time. I also think it's perfectly OK to be annoyed by situations that are outside your control, as long as you remember that asking for help or making your expectations known is within your control.
posted by Sara C. at 1:26 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I know from experience that when you are more busy/stressed out than your partner, AND it seems like your partner just lazes about all day, it can be maddening.

You're doing the right thing with communicating and chore lists and the like, and it might help to think about the ways in which B is doing better about stuff (even if he's not perfect).

I always realize after I've said or done something passive aggressive that I was behaving like an ass, but I need help stopping that impulse. What's a better way of dealing with my frustration in those situations?

When you were cleaning and fuming, were you getting mad because you wished that B would notice what you were doing and at least offer to help? If so -- stop wishing. B isn't psychic, and you aren't Professor X so you can't implant thoughts in his brain. Just ask for you want: "Hey B, would you mind folding the laundry and taking the dog out? It's hard for me to concentrate when that stuff isn't getting done."

Another thing to think about is why you are stressed out right now, and he is not. For me, it was especially bad when I chose go to a professional night school (while also working full time) but Mr. Motion was basically a full-time student (living off of a stipend). When I could remind myself that my stress was because of my choices (that I made because I wanted to), it made it seem less "unfair," and helped me to be more patient with him.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:28 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

To build on what other people are saying, using your words can be hard, especially when you know you're too angry to speak nicely and don't want to start a fight, just get your needs heard. The solution I've come up with is, when I realize I'm mad about something and that "using my words" is the healthy thing to do, I'll say: "This is uncomfortable for me to say because I don't know if I'm justified and I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I'm really frustrated with you right now because--"

That puts the fact of my feelings out there and starts the conversation without turning into the shouting that I know is the wrong reaction or the silence that isn't healthy, either way. It helps that my husband is very patient and open to feedback; if he *is* slacking, he will respond well, and if he's not and my frustration isn't really appropriately aimed at him, he will be very understanding.
posted by gideonfrog at 1:41 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Something I haven't seen mentioned yet: to err is human. If you catch yourself engaging in these negative behaviors. Don't be afraid to apologise. It's not a get out of jail free card, but it can really make a difference to the other person.

I note conflicts like your example are far, far from uncommon, and they almost always involve women asking (or not) men to clean. Unfortunately that's society /patriarchy for you. Many men are not socialised to think of cleaning, and it can take some work from them to establish a new mindset about it. You're not alone buddy, best of luck.
posted by smoke at 2:16 PM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Re the issue of using your words when you already feel frustrated and at the boiling point, one thing to remind yourself is that your boyfriend is on your team. My partner often has trouble giving voice to the fact that he's upset with me, and instead snaps at me later about something unrelated, or stomps around in a huff, etc. Which makes me sad, since it's not like I would break up with him for being pissed that I didn't run the dishwasher. I hate the idea that it's not OK to express your (perfectly valid) feelings over what is ultimately a minor thing.

These are really common conflicts, and deciding to just swallow your feelings about it is a bad long term strategy, both in a feminist sense and in the sense that tomorrow someone is going to have to do the dishes, again.
posted by Sara C. at 2:26 PM on September 25, 2016

Recognizing your passive aggression and instantly apologizing for it is the best thing you can do.

It reduces the harm and decreases the frequency in my experience.

Also I pay much closer attention to my blood sugar. These kinds of things - irritation, raging and passive aggression - are all things I do when I haven't eaten enough.
posted by srboisvert at 2:41 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

As nicely as possible, using your words to ask for what you want is Adulting 101. You absolutely can learn to do this because you have all of the skills you need to do that.

So here is the new rule: you are actually not allowed to get mad until you have asked for what you want. A really good trick for doing this is to use the "It would make me happy if..." statement.

"It would make me happy if you could help with the cleaning up."

It is not necessary to explain to another adult why you are asking them to, you know, be an adult. However, if you feel absolutely compelled to do so, "It would make me happy if you could help with the cleaning up. I;m stressed about about X and the mess is making me more stressed."
posted by DarlingBri at 2:51 PM on September 25, 2016 [8 favorites]

You have two aims: express what you want, and treat your partner the way you'd like to be treated. Unlike earlier answerers, I suggest this as rule one: No matter how irritated or resentful you feel, don't raise your voice or speak sarcastically. When you get pissed off and express anger, it might make you feel better for the moment, and prevent you from saying what really needs to be said. Also, yelling and sarcasm never help. Ever. If you're already pissed and don't allow yourself to vent angrily, you'll be left with the need to do something constructive.

I suggest this rule because it's going to take some time to completely change the pattern of say nothing/feel resentful. You were taught this pattern all your life from infancy, so be good to yourself when you fall back into it. BUT force yourself not to lash out or even use body language that shows you're angry at him, because you're the one who made a mistake.

So, as for the communication part, I agree with most of the advice above. You don't have to wait till it's "cleaning time"... you can both chose tasks ahead of time. Or, if you're in the position of asking him to do some housework, you can phrase it as, "I'm about to do A and B -- would you be willing to do B and C?" Sometime I say to my husband, "Would you rather load up the dishwasher or fold a load of clothes?" A couple I know actually went to a therapist to figure out how to split up household work and actually get it done; the therapist suggested that they each start by listing which jobs they dislike least and most. Of course, this is something you'd do ahead of time.

In the not-unlikely even that he still doesn't pull his weight, continue with the no-yelling and no-sarcasm. Talk with him about it with an attitude toward making a plan and finding out how he's willing to take care of housekeeping responsibilities, and don't wait till the place is a mess.
posted by wryly at 3:51 PM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

B has been laying on the couch within eyeshot while I'm cleaning and hasn't said a thing. When I'm done, I leave the room and B gets up and follows me and asks what's wrong

There are people who would consider this description of B's behavior to be a snapshot of the ultimate in passive-aggressive behavior. however passive-aggressive you may be, at least you're not passive enough to actually recline on a couch while you're being it.

Although I respect your agency in determining that you have a personal problem and want to fix it for your own well-being and identity formation, and you have the right to recondition your own habits, some kind of couples therapy might be a good idea anyway. because "how can I reprogram my reflexes so that I don't retaliate when I'm treated badly" is a question a saint or a martyr would ask. and saints and martyrs get accused of passive-aggression anyway, so it's a losing battle.

What's a better way of dealing with my frustration in those situations?

Get out, get away from the source of frustration, which I will uncharitably assume is usually B, and go somewhere clean, quiet, and under control where a polite stranger will bring you a drink and all you have to do is order and pay for it, not ask or beg or bargain or complain or clean up after. Passive-aggression is wasted on waiters so you should not feel tempted to misdirect your aggravation while you're there. If you share funds, use shared funds for this. Don't come back home until you feel better. if it takes more than an hour or two to feel better, the problem is bigger than just your emotional reflexes.
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:58 PM on September 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

I'll flip the script for you for a second and come at you from the other side of this.

I am not passive aggressive. I am straight up aggressive. To me, it's a matter of respect. I respect the person enough to "be straight" with them. I respect them as an intelligent person, that they will understand my clearly spoken words and my stated intentions.

In that action, I am also showing respect for myself. People might not like it when you call them out, but they respect it. I'm not a lunatic about it, though. You don't demand respect, you command it.

When someone is passive aggressive with me, it makes my respect for them go down...like, why can't they just say their say? Scared of me? Not confident of their position? Are they disrespecting me but don't have the balls to do it to my face?

Being passive aggressive is an ineffectual way of getting what you want. Try getting comfortable with being straightforward. Think of it as an exercise in mutual respect.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 4:58 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

People might not like it when you call them out, but they respect it

We really do not. It is not people in general who respond so obligingly to straightforward aggression but only a very specific and limited personality type. The poster's partner may have such a personality, but it's not a sure thing.

I think it's true that passive-aggressive people get to be that way because they are scared of the consequences of their own anger. What is left out of this analysis is that often they are right to be scared, because their anger is so big that if it isn't stifled, it will do things that can't be undone. "I'm mad because you don't clean unless I ask you to, and asking you to is work" is nothing much, it's not scary, it makes sense to me that you wouldn't respect someone who is afraid to say such a thing.

but how about "I'm mad because you act like my lazy controlling parent and that forces me to respond like my nagging shrill parent, and that makes me despise myself and hate you for making me feel that way," or "I'm mad because when you act like a child it kills my love for you, but if I stay quiet and calm down and never say so, my love grows back bit by bit like a bad haircut, you just have to wait it out; I'm afraid if I say out loud when you cut away my love for you, when I'm still angry, it'll be like a severed limb, gone forever."

Or whatever. But people who are afraid of expressing their anger aren't that way because their anger is weak and puny and child-like. They are often angrier than the shallow rhetoric of call-outs can encompass.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:29 PM on September 25, 2016 [28 favorites]

The whole time I'm fuming because B has been laying on the couch within eyeshot while I'm cleaning and hasn't said a thing.

Do people here really think you must be so stupid that you've never tried using your words to ask him for help? Chances are you probably have asked for help, chances are he's chosen to ignore you, and by posting this question you're at your wits end in how to talk to someone who doesn't listen. I have to agree with queenofbithynia that you may be owning more than your fair share of the problem here. I highly doubt that he "doesn't understand" how to be an adult in this situation, and suggestions that "you're having an argument in your head that the other person knows nothing about" or "B isn't psychic, and you aren't Professor X so you can't implant thoughts in his brain" are just crap. You can't tell me a grown-ass man is too stupid to recognize when the person he uses for sex is frustrated from being overworked. That his instincts are "too broken" for him to intuit his partner's emotional needs, but not his own physical, sexual, and gaming entertainment needs? Oh gawd, how convenient! Whatever are we to do for this frail modern man who is just too "helpless" to understand that if he's the one sitting on his ass all day, watching TV and playing video games, that he should also be taking 15 minutes to clean up the shared living space. Is this his way of retaining "innocence"? (but I didn't do anything!!!! why am I the bad guy??? YOU're the one who wants the house so clean, therefore, your misery is not my fault, etc etc etc).

I might not have encouraging advice because I can relate from a similar situation where I was the grad student and my boyfriend was also in post-secondary but spent the majority of his time on the couch, playing video games. It never got better. I went to counseling, tried new communication strategies, accepted empty promises, and worked harder to be a more adequate domestic servant in the relationship to make up for those broken promises because I just wanted the damn relationship to work... and in the meantime, he remained seated on his ass, refused any form of counseling, and never changed. Eventually that relationship ended.

What's a better way of dealing with my frustration in those situations?

This is just my two cents, but maybe try giving your personality credit that you're probably passive-aggressive in response to someone you trust who's being passive-aggressive with you (i.e. he'd rather sit on the couch, watching you clean, than admit he's too immature to want to maintain a clean living space). Try telling yourself, maybe this is how you react to being actively unloved by someone who claims to love you otherwise, and see how that resonates. Chances are his "inability" to do domestic work as part of normal self-care and/or relationship maintenance is closely linked with his engendered entitlement to simply just not care about such things (a problem which haunts many hard-working high-performing women across many cultures, in many countries, to this day).
posted by human ecologist at 5:46 PM on September 25, 2016 [15 favorites]

As a straight up aggressive person utterly lacking in cunning or the ability to comprehend Guess culture people (vs Ask culture people, of which I am a definite member) unless given explicit instruction, the thing that seems to work best when I'm trying to create healthy relationships with folks who engage in passive aggressive behaviors is reminding them that I am not psychic.

When you catch yourself getting aggravated because someone isn't doing something the way that you want them to do it (or doing it at all), take a minute to remind yourself that we are all alone in our heads, and our sensory apparatuses and memories aren't particularly reliable. That doesn't mean that the other person isn't at fault - your partner sure as heck sounds like a dude who needs a wake up call - but it does mean that to start resolving the issue the actions you should take are different from what you would do when being passive aggressive.

Real classic passive aggressive behavior like you describe in your question here always seems to me like the person is doing some kind of... baffling waggle dance, communicating in an alien language I absolutely do not understand. It's absolutely clear to them, and frustrating when I don't get it, but it's the same the other way around! The issue with resolving this though is that everybody kind of speaks a different language here, or at least a different dialect, so you've got to adjust yourself for every different person to avoid conflict. Being comfortable with a low level of conflict is really important because the flipside is maintaining a polyglot's mental library of interpersonal formats. Reminding yourself (or having a loved one remind you in a caring way) that your choices aren't going to be understood because the other person can't read your mind to decipher your actions seems to be the way to nip it in the bud, at least somewhat.

Part of me wonders though, how much do you do these things to people who aren't safe? Safe as in, they will love you anyway. It's entirely natural to test boundaries and basically be a little pill towards people who we feel safe and comfortable with, or people we have power over, while being very different with strangers and people who we're obligated towards. It can happen for a lot of reasons but it's often because we're feeling unsafe from something else, like a looming life change or a scary work situation or a loved one's drama. So I mean, you've got grad school, that's a whole big scary thing. Would you be able to get to the bottom of this and express that to your partner and he could be proactive about making you feel safe/stable/not fearing whatever it is you're fearing? Then you can have sort of a short hand for it, and when you start thinking passive aggressive thoughts you can unravel it a little.

I mean honestly though, dude needs to do the dishes.
posted by Mizu at 7:23 PM on September 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've found Non-Violent Communication (NVC) to be quite helpful. It's direct, it's fast, and it short circuits passive aggressive behavior because it demands being attentive to your current emotional state while preventing you from going over the edge into having the argument in your head and getting more angry. It honors your emotional needs, so you feel empowered, while sticking with the facts so B doesn't feel attacked.

The tricky part of your question is that the circumstances surrounding the passive-aggressive behavior are strongly tied to hot button issues like gender norms, emotional labor, division of household chores, etc. I think the argument over emotional labor and gender norms, while important and absolutely necessary to debate, doesn't serve well in situations like this because those arguments and the related stereotypes are like adding gasoline to a fire. You're already pissed off that he's not helping - adding the argument about gender norms on top of it (the lazy dude vs. the 50's housewife) is toxic, inflammatory, and only hurts you because the anger short-circuits your ability to think clearly in the moment. Because, really, you aren't trying to move mountains and change stereotypes for all women everywhere - you just want him to help you do X and Y around the house. That's it. And you want to communicate in an effective, neutral tone before you spin out.

I think the key thing to remember is that if you are reacting against a perceived stereotype ("WTF? Why are men so lazy?"), you'll treat him like one, and you'll stop seeing each other. NVC takes a different approach:

1. Observe your emotions (in this case, passive-aggressiveness)
2. Communicate feelings as soon as you're centered ("B, I'm really noticing that I'm feeling overwhelmed, utterly exhausted and at the end of my rope")
3. Communicate needs ("I need to have some of this taken off my plate")
4. Make a request to the other person ("Would you mind just taking 10 or 15 minutes helping me with the dishes? It would really mean a lot")

NVC concepts:

The process of NVC encourages us to focus on what we and others are observing separate from our interpretations and judgments . . . and to be clear about what we would like towards meeting those needs. These skills give the ability to translate from a language of criticism, blame, and demand into a language of human needs -- a language of life that consciously connects us to the universal qualities “alive in us” that sustain and enrich our well being, and focuses our attention on what actions we could take to manifest these qualities.

Here is what they call a "needs inventory" (PDF at the bottom of the page) that can help you formulate what you'd want to say in the moment, in a non-inflammatory way.
posted by onecircleaday at 8:26 PM on September 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm not usually passive aggressive, but last time I was about to do something passive aggressive I coincidentally watched a video that explained why passive aggressiveness is useless and it realy helped! If you happen to have a Lynda subscription, you can watch it here.

Here's the story, in short: a friend pulls her new car into a parking lot. A Rolls Royce pulls up next to her and, when opening their door, dents her new car. She responds by keying the hell out of the Rolls after the driver goes into the store.

The speaker explained how, when the Rolls owner came back to their car, they probably wouldn't know why their car was keyed. If the protagonist would have approached the driver, pointed out the dent, and asked to exchange information, she might have gotten some cash - or at least an apology. Instead, it was a lose-lose situation.

After hearing that, I thought about other times I've been passive aggressive and realized that the other person had no idea why I was acting like I did. People can't read minds! So I ended up being more frustrated myself while getting absolutely nothing out of it.

As others have pointed out, the better course of action is assertive communication. (That course I linked to has great pointers for doing this well!) In your situation, I think it would be helpful if you admit to your partner that you have passive-aggressive tendencies you are trying to solve. Tell him that you are going to try communicating more openly with him, for example, when you would like him to do something. Tell him how you think this open communication will help your relationship. It will work better if he is on board with your efforts and ready to respond to you openly instead of defensively.
posted by beyond_pink at 7:15 AM on September 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I also struggle with this - I come from a family where asking for help is often met with 1) being told to take care of it myself (with a side order of being made to feel needy or annoying for even asking), or 2) being not heard or understood (starting a circular argument or leaving me standing holding the bag/sponge). I have also had relationships with people who react the same way to my requesting help.

I have learned with my current partner that I can:

1. Notice that I'm feeling overwhelmed
2. Tell my partner that I'm feeling overwhelmed
3. Request emotional support (in the form of listening or sharing a cuddle) or active support (in the form of working by my side or taking on a part of what I'm working on)
4. Thank him for his support

...and that over time he has started to respond to #2 by actively offering support ("Would you like a hug? How about we both tackle the kitchen together?") which is something very new for me in a relationship.

Your partner can't read your mind or anticipate your needs, but if you give him the tools to understand your needs (how you're feeling and what he can do to help), he can (try to) meet them.
posted by pammeke at 8:27 AM on September 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

I also grew up with a passive/aggressive parent and struggle with this as an adult. I have to say that your example doesn't strike me as very bad in the grand scheme of things. But I completely understand the struggle.

I think apologizing after you've behaved badly is a great idea. It fosters some goodwill, and I find it is also a deterrent to behaving badly in the future.

I also think asking someone to do something, instead of expecting them to read your mind, is a great idea. (Or asking them to stop doing something, as the case may be.) Not yelling, not fuming, but asking.
posted by Cranialtorque at 11:09 AM on September 26, 2016

OP, I laud you for recognizing that you are having a problem with communicating your stress and frustration in your relationship, and are setting up some bad dynamics that need to be reworked. Lots of good advice here.

I'm going to respectfully contest the use of the phrase "passive aggressive" here. Its common use is to describe someone who acts assertively but doesn't directly engage in direct conversation when they rightfully should (as in the scenario you describe, or in the case of someone leaving a general note on the workplace fridge about messes when everyone knows who is being messy in the kitchen.)

The clinical definition is really very different and involves someone who does not act. "Passive-aggressive behavior is the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, stubbornness, sullen behavior, or deliberate or repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible." I know this may seem pendantic, but I was married to someone who fit the clinical definition to a T, and it took much longer than it should have for he and I both to understand what was going on because of the casual-use definition. In talking with people who've had the same kind of struggles I've had, this is a pretty common point of confusion, so I try to gently get the word out when I can.
posted by Sublimity at 2:01 PM on September 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

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