Dealing with the Passive-Agressive Personality
by Dr. Les Carter
Nancy was at her wits end, not knowing how to proceed in her relationship with Norman. “He’s the most unreachable person I know,” she said. “He’s made one promise after another about improving our marriage, but nothing ever comes of it.”

Occasionally, she would receive reassurances from her husband about being cooperative but in reality, he was just saying what was necessary to momentarily get her off his back. He would give one word answers to her questions or perhaps he would not respond at all. He would forget birthdays and anniversaries. “What angers me most,” she said, “is that he did few of these things prior to marriage. Before we got married, he was a near-perfect gentleman, very considerate. He was funny and engaging, and always seemed available. Now, I feel so defrauded,” Nancy said.

Though not completely familiar with the term, Nancy was living with the quintessential passive-aggressive person. This manner of life is typified by emotionally abusive treatment of others through non-cooperation, evasiveness and behaviors that leave others disempowered. The goal of the passive-aggressive is to preserve self’s perceived needs at the other person’s expense. Though they may never say these words, their behavior communicates, “Try as hard as you like, but you will never pin me down. I’m only interested in my agenda.”

Often passive-aggressives can appear pleasant and congenial, but time eventually proves such qualities are a part of a disguise. Beneath the surface are traits that could be changed but are not.Most prominent are: a “quiet” anger, irrational fear and a need for control. Let’s look at each separately. A quiet commitment to anger: Some people falsely assume that anger is only manifested in loud raucous behavior. If you don’t shout or curse or throw things, you probably don’t have anger issues, Right? Anger, is not that one-dimensional. Passive-aggressives experience anger as a means of self-preservation. Instead, they choose to register their anger via non-compliance, hidden rebellion, withdrawal and seeming to act oblivious to everything. This behavior quietly shouts: “You bug me and I’m going to punish you for thinking counter to me.”

Irrational fear: While openness and vulnerability are part of the equation for healthy relations, passive-aggressives consider such traits threatening. “If I fully expose what I feel,” they tell themselves, “you’ll try to invalidate me.” They operate with low confidence that others can be trusted, and they often draw upon past unpleasant experiences that taught them to be guarded toward anyone who thinks differently. Insecurity and defensiveness, then, are primary traits that prompt them to fend off potential rejection.

The need for control: The passive aggressive has become convinced that the way to protect his or her fragile ego is to be in control as fully as possible. Rather than viewing relationships as a dynamic exchange of encouragement and understanding, they think in competitive terms. Who will win here and who will lose? Who is going to dominate and who will be the subordinate? Others are not considered potential partners as much as they are potential adversaries. Minimal exposure, then, becomes a tactic in preserving power.

Nancy asked a question common to someone connected to a passive aggressive. “How in the world can I make him change?” My response was to remind her that it is not her place to change someone, particularly one fiercely committed to passive stubbornness. Any coercive efforts from her would draw her into an emotional tug-of-war, and inevitably the passive aggressive would win.

“Focus instead on three things,” I suggested to Nancy. “First, recognize that your husband’s behavior is not a referendum about your worth. You can’t afford to place your own emotional stability into his or anyone else’s care. Second, in sober moments, speak non-coercively about your goals for the relationship. Make no demands, but let him know that you care about your future together.

You owe it to yourself to be open about your beliefs. Third, live with well-defined personal boundaries. If he chooses to be difficult, you can proceed with assertiveness and consequences. You need not beg for his permission or cooperation to live correctly.” It’s sad when individuals maintain a commitment to hidden rage, yet you need not be so drawn into the undertow that you also become unhealthy. When you choose not to enter into power games, you’ll not have to worry about who is declared the winner or the loser.

Dr. Les Carter, is the chief resident psychotherapist at the Minirth Clinic, Richardson, Texas. He is the author of the new book, “The Anger Trap” (Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2003, $21.95). For more information, visit or