10 signs of passive-aggressive behavior in a relationship, according to psychology

We sometimes include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate disclosure.

Your partner is being extra difficult, and you can’t help but wonder why.

Are they being passive-aggressive, or are they simply struggling and need some time and space for themselves?

Thankfully, with psychology, it’s possible to figure it out.

In this article, I will share 10 signs of passive-aggressive behavior in a relationship according to psychology.

1) Procrastination

It’s like your partner never follows through with anything you’ve planned. 

They might say yes to a vacation, but they still don’t have their bags packed the night before your flight.

Reschedule it, and they’ll somehow be unprepared for that, too!

Procrastination may be a sign of their resentment, Dr. Daniel Hall-Flavin explains.

They might not be able to say “no” to a schedule—or they may be annoyed at you for a totally different thing!— and so they’ll delay things as much as possible to spite you.

2) The silent treatment

They refuse to respond when you talk to them in person. 

And when you send them messages, they’ll leave you “on read” all day even if they used to respond at lightning speed.

You can tell that they’re upset, and you’ll probably assume that you did something they didn’t like.

But no matter how much you try to talk to them about it, they simply won’t respond—ever!

Now, there’s a big difference between silence and silent treatment

The latter is a deliberate act to punish, control, and manipulate, and yes—it’s a form of abuse!

Silent treatment has many negative effects. Psychologists say that silent treatment could lead to self-doubt and self-blame.

And of course, it’s damaging to even the strongest relationship. ​​

In a study of 581 couples, partners reported significantly lower relationship satisfaction when their partner used silent treatment.

So if your partner has a habit of doing this to you, call them out before they cause more damage to your self-esteem and your relationship.

3) Stonewalling

Another thing they might do is that they might talk to you—but if you were to try saying more than “hi” they’ll tell you it’s “not the time” for a little chat.

It’s good to avoid talking about stressful things when we’re not mentally prepared to handle it.

But the problem is that they turn down your every attempt to start a conversation.

They always have an excuse, like “I’ve got a headache” or “today was just stressful”,  and while you were quite happy to let them be at first, you feel like it’s going on for too long now.

Psychologist John Gottmann says that this behavior is dangerous to a relationship because it creates a sense of disconnection. And if stonewalling becomes a recurring pattern, it can be a predictor of divorce.

4) Excess sarcasm

Bring your partner to your favorite restaurant and you might just catch them rolling their eyes and say “I loooove this restaurant!”

And if you get upset or call them out on it, they’ll say “Chill! I was just joking!”

Sarcasm gives them an easy excuse to hurt you and then act like it wasn’t intentional.

Don’t get me wrong—sarcasm is great. But like all things good in the world, it’s something that needs to be used carefully.

Sarcasm is one form of contempt that Gottman described as one of the most poisonous of all relationship killers.

So if you care about your relationship, minimize sarcasm.

And if your partner is sarcastic with you, show them this article and read studies about how this behavior could potentially lead to the end of your relationship.

5) Patronizing language

Share your dreams and ambitions with your partner, and they will be quick to go “Oh, you can’t handle that.”

They might say you’re “too ambitious” or “you’re wasting your time.”

And now and then, they’ll say things like “do you understand what I’m saying?” or “Uhh…catch my drift?” 

Social psychologist Sara Nasserzadeh says that patronizing language can chip away from the trust and respect that you have for your partner.

Does your partner really think you’re THAT incompetent? Probably not.

But they might be saying those things to purposefully hurt you.

You’ve probably hurt them and in return, they want to hurt you even more by making you feel inferior—even stupid.

If they’re especially angry towards you, they’ll go beyond language—they’ll display patronizing behaviors towards you, too.

6) Social exclusion

Have you ever experienced being left out of your partner’s plans with his friends and family? 

And did it happen when you had a gut feeling that they’re angry at you over something?

Not a coincidence!

Perhaps they might go to a party without informing you or extending the invitation to you.

Or sure, they tagged you along but made sure you don’t feel welcome by deliberately ignoring you while they talk with everyone.

You probably experienced social exclusion and according to studies, it can threaten a person’s sense of belonging and self-esteem.

This is abusive behavior and if you don’t address this issue with your partner, your mental health and relationship will definitely suffer.

7) Backhanded compliments

They’d say things like “Finally! I didn’t think you’d ever get a promotion…but WOW!” 

Or “That dress looks good for your body type!”

It might seem like they’re praising you at first, but spare a moment to ruminate on their words and it’s clear they’re actually trying to insult you.

Backhanded compliments are passive-aggression that’s coated with jealousy.

They’re clearly upset at you for some reason—they’re probably jealous of your success or they hate the fact you’re dressing up—but they couldn’t even be bothered to be honest about it!

This is classic passive-aggression. If they weren’t being passive-aggressive, they would have instead tried to talk over their issues with you.

8) Being inefficient and incompetent

There’s this thing called “weaponized incompetence”, and it’s a favorite among passive-aggressive people.

If you tell them that they’re not doing enough chores, they WILL help out for sure.

But they’ll do it so badly that you’ll almost want them to just stop and go back to whatever they were doing.

They would wash the dishes in a way that wastes a lot of water, mix plain and dyed clothes in the washer, and mow the lawn so low that it’s almost bald.

Now they could do all these well, and both of you know that. But they don’t want to. 

What they really want is to drive you up the wall.

9) Weaponizing kindness

Even kindness can be weaponized for less than savory ends.

And passive-aggressive partners are definitely the kind of people who use “kindness” this way.

After you tell them—in the nicest way possible— that they should put their dirty clothes in the hamper, they might just nod and say sorry…even smile as if everything’s cool.

But then they’d suddenly clean the house like they’re a house maid to make them appear like the victim.

They can’t just say “hey, I got hurt when you said that.”

Instead, they’ll make you feel guilty as a way to hurt you and guilt-trip you in return.

10) Indirect criticisms

At first their remarks might seem random, but a pattern soon emerges—they’re comparing you to people who are “better” than you in some way.

Perhaps they think their best friend is more attentive to their partner than you are.

So they might bring up how their best friend has been taking their partner out on dates every weekend.

Or maybe you haven’t been promoted in a year, so they’ll talk about how one of their coworkers is so ambitious they got promoted twice in the last six months!

They go out of their way to criticize you without committing to the criticism itself.

It stings…and you don’t even have the right to point your finger at them!

Final thoughts

There are many reasons why some people choose to be passive-aggressive. 

Maybe they were raised that way…

Maybe they lack good communication skills…

Or maybe they simply feel like they can’t afford to be direct with you somehow.

If you want your relationship to survive, then you gotta do something about their behavior.

Find out what’s making them act that way and do something about it. Then tell them to minimize the behaviors listed above because they’re hurting your relationship.

And if you can, teach them how to speak up. 

It’s tempting to just throw in the towel, but don’t. Who knows all they need is just a bit more guidance and understanding.

Did you like my article? Like me on Facebook to see more articles like this in your feed.

Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

10 signs you’re exceptionally good at spotting mind games and manipulation

10 classic signs of a fake nice person, according to psychology