At its heart, passive-aggressive behavior is all about avoidance. It happens when people show certain negative emotions in an indirect way.
Rather than be open and direct about their anger and annoyance, they try to find more covert ways of releasing it.
Passive aggression aims to punish and hurt others, yet usually in a concealed or discreet way. And that can make it trickier to spot.
This article will identify passive-aggressive behaviors to look out for and discuss the best way of dealing with it.
So let’s dive in!
Sulking is when we withdraw affection from someone and go cold on them whenever we feel wronged.
The person may act moody so that you know something is definitely up, yet they won’t admit it or say what’s going on.
Perhaps they insist they are “fine” when you ask them, even though the evidence clearly suggests they’re not.
- Refuse to admit there is a problem
- Refuse to address the issue
- Be snappy, frosty with you, and short-tempered toward you
- Make other excuses for their behavior, rather than be honest about what is really the problem
- Show their displeasure by huffing and puffing, slamming doors, or through body language and facial expressions
Sulking may also be accompanied by (or lead to) the next sign on our list.
2) Giving the silent treatment
Going quiet on you is often a way of saying “f**k you” without having to actually say it.
It’s similar to sulking but usually involves even more of a retreat into themselves.
This type of stonewalling is about creating a distance between you.
But if communication totally shuts down, you may be left wondering what the hell is going on.
- Walk off in the middle of an argument
- Make excuses why they can’t talk to you
- Refuse to answer your questions
- Ignore your calls, texts, and messages
The silent treatment isn’t only used when someone is feeling angry or sad.
This passive-aggressive technique has become a common phenomenon in the world of dating through ghosting.
Rather than deal with the discomfort of being honest about how they feel, someone may take the easy way out by ignoring the situation altogether.
3) Sarcasm, snide comments, and subtle digs
A lot of folks try to hide behind humor.
They can also use it to justify mean behavior. They hide the truth under the guise of “just joking around”.
But their cruel comments and observations may be intended as weapons to land hurtful blows.
It’s an indirect way of trying to put someone in their place.
Sarcasm can be a great mask for passive aggression because it is actually pretty socially accepted.
Similarly, they may use phrases to cushion what they are saying, such as, “Don’t take this the wrong way but…”.
If they need to say that, then there is a good chance that what they are about to tell you is an unkind dig that is being clumsily presented to you.
- Make you the butt of the joke whenever they’re mad at you
- Highlight certain flaws but in a “lighthearted” way
- Try to laugh off a cruel comment
- Tell you that you’re being too sensitive or uptight
4) Playing the martyr
People pleasers can fall into martyr-like behaviors because they struggle to say no.
Rather than turn someone down, they end up resenting them for what they have agreed to do.
They say yes to what’s requested of them, but follow it up with complaints and snide remarks.
- Keep score
- Try to make you feel bad about doing favors or good deeds for you
- Point out when you owe them something
- Express how inconvenient something is, yet simultaneously say they are happy to do it
- Talk about how they are taken for granted and not appreciated
- Say how their kindness is often taken advantage of
Whenever resentment builds, then it can spill over into the next behavior on our list.
5) Voicing frustrations behind people’s back
This is a classic. How many of us can say we’ve never indulged?
The reality is that we complain and moan about people behind their backs as a way of venting our annoyance at them.
Yet really, the only person we should be talking to is the one we have a problem with.
But if you’re scared of conflict or worried about the implications of doing that, it can feel like an easier option to blow off some steam.
- Refuse to raise a problem or issue with you directly
- Go above your head at work to complain about you
- Express their irritation to others behind your back
- Get someone else to say something to you instead of telling you themselves
This one can come as a surprise. But procrastination can be used as a passive-aggressive technique to avoid the things someone doesn’t want to do.
Rather than be upfront about it, they use delaying tactics instead.
- Say yes to doing something but then drag their heels about it
- Refuse to give you a straight answer and keep putting it off
- Show resistance to cooperate
- Make intentional errors and mistakes after you ask them to do something
- Be late all the time as an avoidance tactic
How do you deal with a passive-aggressive person?
1) Try to understand what drives it
I hold my hands up and admit that I have a problem with passive-aggressive behavior from time to time.
If you’re dealing with someone’s passive aggression and feeling confused as to why they behave this way, I’d like to shed some light on it.
This doesn’t excuse it, but it can be useful to realize it’s not about you, it’s about them.
For me, it arises when I am feeling hurt or threatened. In those heightened emotional moments I don’t have the tools to express myself in a healthy way.
I fear that speaking my mind will create conflict or an uncomfortable situation.
I may be trying to stifle anger or shield myself from the pain I am feeling. I am scared to express those things, so I try to sit on them.
But of course, these things have a habit of seeping out — and voilà — passive aggression happens.
Many fellow passive-aggressive types like me are also afraid to let others know when they are annoyed, frustrated, disappointed, etc.
They may have been taught to repress these sorts of feelings. But these perfectly normal human emotions need an outlet.
The bottom line is that most passive aggression arises from insecurity.
It’s not always intentional. It’s a defense mechanism and people may not even realize they’re doing it.
2) Don’t be tempted to match fire with fire
Yes, it is annoying if your partner gives you the silent treatment. But if you give it right back then you quickly create a stalemate situation.
That isn’t going to resolve anything.
As unfair as it may seem, passive aggression met with more passive aggression will only make things worse.
Rather than back down, they are more likely to become even more defensive.
If you know better, then you need to lead by example and show them this better way.
3) Manage your own emotions
Of course, not flying off the handle is going to require plenty of self-awareness on your part.
Try to be mindful of your own feelings. That will help you to manage them.
You might need to:
- Take some deep breaths
- Have a time out to compose yourself
- Set firmer boundaries
4) Try to approach the situation with compassion
If you really want to find a workable solution for dealing with passive-aggressive behavior then compassion should be your first attempt.
As passive aggression tends to be driven by insecurity, reassurance, and kindness is the best way of de-escalating.
If the other person feels valued and cared for, they are more likely to drop their defenses.
However, this comes with an important caveat, as we’ll see next…
5) Don’t play their games
Passive aggression should never be rewarded by giving in to someone. Because the reality is that it can often be used as a way of gaining control in the relationship.
If you suck up every time someone sulks, you are reinforcing their negative patterns.
That’s why whilst compassion is important, you shouldn’t ignore their unhealthy methods.
- Don’t apologize or take the blame for things you are not responsible for
- Don’t be afraid to put your own needs first
- Do (kindly and calmly) highlight passive-aggressive behavior when it happens
- Explain how their passive aggression impacts you and why it hurts you
It can be useful to have this conversation when emotions have calmed down a little.
How they respond will make a big difference to how you proceed.
We’re all just human, which means a bit of passive aggression can creep in from time to time.
But a reasonable and responsible person will want to do better when you let them know how they’ve been behaving.
If they don’t, then you may start to question if you want them in your life or whether you can limit the time spent with them as a way of protecting yourself.