I Confess… I am a Passive Aggressive Husband

Revised 12/30/19

I have a confession to make. I am a passive-aggressive husband.

I am not proud of it.  And, as a couples therapist, I am not particularly comfortable in admitting it.

I have, however, decided to do something about it because it is crowding out my best self.

So where does my passive-aggression come from? The usual culprit for most relationship struggles is our FOO (family-of-origin). There’s a rub here, however.

Not all men who have been dealt a lousy parental hand wind up as a passive-aggressive man. Developmental Trauma is a burden on the soul, but it doesn’t determine our fate. Our fate is determined by our capacity to perceive dysfunctional patterns and take ourselves on.

It is not the decision of others in our past, it is the decisions that we make for ourselves today that matter.

And where can the passive-aggressive husband begin to perceive his dysfunctional patterns? How can passive aggressive men change?

At least that part is easy. Ask yourself “how was anger dealt within my family of origin?”

Three Types of Dysfunctional Family Anger

The Bull in the China Shop Family.  In this family, Rage is Power. Naked uncompromising aggression is the norm. Screaming, yelling, insults, sarcasm, and intimidation.

The angriest family member prevails, and that is what children in this family learn.

These children often turn out as aggressive and narcissistic as their parents. In other words, many become passive-aggressive men.

The Scream in the Closet Family. For these families, it’s just extremely inappropriate to be angry.

Content is secondary, the mere expression of anger is a punishable offense. Only bad, ungrateful people show anger.

Children in these families learn to keep their discontent to themselves. A variant on this pattern is one where one family member has a monopoly on anger but calls it something different…like being right for example.

Having the last word silences any protest and sends contrary family anger into the closet where it belongs. The bull has the run of the house and the rest of the family keeps their anger in the closet. That was the story of my family growing up. It is a story true for many passive-aggressive men.

  •  The Silent Scream in the Closet Family. These families leave anger hanging in silence. They are utterly non-reactive. Anger is merely the ghost of a feeling. Children in these families learn that anger is utterly futile, and a waste of time and effort. It produces passive aggressive men who are frightened to express anger but are angry, nevertheless.

What all the children of these families learn is an unhealthy relationship with a fundamental human emotion. These children cannot express, regulate, or attend to anger in a constructive and relational way.

And these children grow up to be passive-aggressive men who cannot express their anger, regulate it well, or attend to it in a friendly and constructive way.

However, it’s the families that closet anger away that teach similar messages to children. If anger is

an inappropriate feeling that children and other family members are not entitled to, passive-aggression becomes a vehicle for not only poorly expressing anger but often, more importantly, poorly reacting to the anger of a spouse.

Passive-aggressive men have a challenging time when their spouse has the NERVE to be angry when they feel a need to stifle this emotion.

Passive-aggression is poverty of recognition and meaning-making.

The Well-Spring of Passive-Aggression

Scream in the Closet Families, and Silent Scream in the Closet Families both teach that anger is totally unacceptable.

The problem here is obvious. Anger is part of being human. However, too much is often made of the passive-aggressive man’s inability to express anger.

What gets lost is a less than thorough exploration of what anger, subjectively experienced from a spouse, means to the passive-aggressive husband.

It is the reactivity of the passive-aggressive husband that often escalates marital unhappiness.

In other words, it’s one thing to feel that your anger is inexpressible, but it’s another thing to feel that your partner is out of line just because they are angry. And that is the message many passive-aggressive men received growing up. They were punished for simply being angry.

Simply have the emotion was breaking the rules in passive-aggressive men’s homes. And therefore, when their spouse expresses anger, even in a healthy way, they are furious at the violation.

Passive-aggressive men are also angry that this woman has the NERVE to express her wants and desires, while he is left with a self-imposed gag of silence and suffering.

The passive-aggressive husband defends against his spouse’s anger by deflecting, denying, and dismissive patterns. These patterns of passive-aggressive men only tend to provoke their wives and escalate the conflict. To the passive-aggressive husband, his spouses’ anger is also a profound comment on his unworthiness.

The Exploitation

His own anger is stuffed down, eventually spewing out in a defensive tirade against the singular unfairness of it all. He must, at any cost, prevail in the face of this unholy onslaught of spousal rage. First, she has violated a family-of-origin norm against expressing anger. Passive-aggressive men feel that this is the first violation.

Secondly, as he’s been taught everything is HIS FAULT, passive-aggressive men assume responsibility for the anger that may have absolutely nothing to do with him. He is, however, hyper-responsible and assumes responsibility. When he can’t take her anger away, passive-aggressive men fume, as once again he’s subjected to anger as a purely toxic emotion. He can’t fix it. He can’t stop her from feeling angry. He can’t comfortably even identify why he wants it to stop.

So how does his protest become known?

Well, as indirectly as possible of course. A passive-aggressive husband doesn’t directly complain about anything. he’s above such petty contentiousness.

Research on the Passive-Aggressive Husband

Dysfunctional patterns of anger in families-of-origin are the acknowledged well-springs of passive-aggression.

A series of studies by Davies, Hentges, et al. was conducted over the last few years on passive-aggressive men and women. It suggested that children who grew up in homes characterized by ongoing unresolved hostility eventually become adults who are relationally insecure and tend to deflect responsibility for their own issues.

These children also grow into adults who tend to be anxious, socially isolated, and depressed. Anger is never confronted, understood, or resolved. It is instead, often seen as a harbinger of relational doom.

One of the reasons why passive-aggressive husbands have become mind-blinded to their maladaptive relationship with anger is that they have conditioned themselves to ignore their own anger, as well as misunderstand the anger of their partners.

How to be a Less Passive-Aggressive Husband

  • Accept that your wife is angry. But it’s not a harbinger of doom. It’s a useful tool to improve your connection. 
  • Increase your understanding of anger as an emotion.  Be curious about being furious. Notice what comes up for you when your spouse is angry…or when you are. Be mindful. Breathe. Notice.
  • Increase your tolerance for anger. Watch how you tend to stuff it down in yourself, and particularly, the story you tell yourself about what it means if your spouse is angry with you. Listen. Lean in. Talk about feeling defensive before you deny, deflect, dismiss, or defend.
  • Ask Questions. Breathe. Then ask more questions. You will be amazed by how mind-blinded you are around your spouses’ anger. Learn not to fear anger.
  • As a passive-aggressive husband, you learned that expressing anger is wrong…so the hidden belief is that your spouse is wrong for expressing anger. And if you come from a Scream in the Closet family where one of your parents held the monopoly on anger and terrorized the family home, recognize the ghosts of these terrors that come up for you when your spouse is angry. Notice. Breathe. Be here now. It’s not the same as your past…honest it isn’t.

Don’t be a Perry Mason-Style Passive-Aggressive Husband

Remember Raymond Burr’s portrayal of Perry Mason? Perry was never content to get his client off…he had to be a brilliant purveyor of justice by finding the real culprit as well. At my worst, I’m a Perry Mason style passive-aggressive husband. When we fight, I often seek to prevail over my wife by acting superior and playing the victim to the hilt. It never works, but for a few fleeting moments, I calm the ghosts in my family of origin by acting smug, superior, and oh so reasonable. But I know it’s only about having the upper hand. I’m not content to be innocent… others must confess their guilt. The main thing about being a passive-aggressive husband is that it drives our partner’s crazy. And it’s a losing strategy. I’m working on mine, and I encourage you to work on yours.

Are You Struggling with Passive Aggression in Your Marriage?

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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  1. I realized there is nothing another person can do to change a passive-aggressive person's behavior. Some PA people not only avoid expressing their feelings but they also attempt to sabotage others and obstruct progress. I thought if I participated more to the point of doing 70% of a project the PA would appreciate it and recognize I helped them. Instead they looked at their 30% share as being put upon. And they sabotaged the project completely by doing their share so subpar it was difficult to not realize it was sabotage. Now I try to be responsible for me and not gift passive-aggressive people. If a person isn't PA they appreciate that and if I do more than my share they will reciprocate at some point and do more than their share – with a PA person you never get that.

  2. Not only is my husband’s behavior passive-aggressive but it’s also inexplicable. He’ll agree to do something and then leave to do something else. At times we’ve walked out the door together to do yard work and he’ll get in his car and drive away without a word. It leaves me exasperated and hurt. The last time we did yard work I had him agree he would actually be there to participate. It seemed like we were both on the same page and once again he got in his car and drove away. It seems that whatever I want he sabotages.
    He also does the same thing when we paint the interior of our home. We talk about the project, gather all the supplies, and then he leaves as the project is about to begin. Talking to him is useless. I never know when he’s agreeing or covertly disagreeing. When I do 95% of a project he’ll claim “he’s helping me” when he does 5%. The other day I told him he had that backward – I was in fact helping him and not the other way around. I pointed out not many wives paint the interior of homes or do all the landscaping and yard work, so I was helping him. He looked shocked and now is giving me the silent treatment. Yesterday he “helped me out” painting the bathroom in the dark after he removed the light sconces. He refused to use the floor lamp for light. My kids and I were shocked. Needless to say I had to repaint the entire bathroom. He’s a perfectionist in all projects he does for himself so why is he doing this?

    1. I think you have to determine what’s in his heart. Is it love and caring consideration? Or is it anger and hatred? That’s your path forward to determine what’s going on here. If it’s anger and hatred, then narcissistic behavior may be in play. If anger, hatred and narcissism are going on, then your traveling the road to hell. Passive aggressive behavior, imho, is a very damaging behavior for any relationship. At it’s roots is dishonesty. They’re presenting themselves as “a friendly”, while covertly obstructing, sabotaging and or undermining others. They’re utterly devious in this pursuit. It’s surprisingly difficult to recognize this behavior as deliberate covert hostility, because they’re masters of plausible deniability and mind fuck gas lighting. And your own biases are working against you here, because if you are presenting from a position of love, care and constructive supportive partnership, then you won’t want to recognize much less bluntly acknowledge that “this person” is a wolf in sheeps clothing! Once that realization is reached and accepted, the covert undermining behavior becomes much easier to recognize. It was right there in front of your face and you were just unable to see it because you have a healthy helpful, good, honest and caring belief system. You are working towards good outcomes. You have good will and you have love and respect in your heart. That’s your driving force in your actions and plans. They’re not of that mindset at all. It’s usually all about them getting what they want, power and control. If they’re narcissistic, they’re building themselves up by breaking you down. Passive aggression is perfect for that, subversively undermining literally and or psychologically. You are in a relation”shit” that’s not a relationship at all, it’s you being used and abused and played to your detriment and or destruction. You will be confused. You will be anxious. There’s limited sense of partnership because they are just not actually concerned about you. It’s all about them. They’ll be obstructionists. They’ll play the victim. There’ll be mind games and there’ll be gas lighting. There’s nothing loving supportive about these relationships, and you will feel it at your core. They’re just evil.

  3. I’ve been married to my passive-aggressive husband for nearly 30 years. I’m honestly completely drained. I appreciate what you have shared here so much. I have often wondered about something else that I was wondering if it relates, and if so, if you could touch on it. My husband expected me to work our whole marriage, would not plan vacations or save money, always spending money on deals, would not work enough so I could be home with the kids. We really don’t have a lot in common anymore. I’m a teacher and I’ve worked three jobs at times because he didn’t make enough to even handle a fourth of the bills. He had us go through bankruptcy twice, had me pull my retirement, we lost a home to foreclosure, and I’m wondering, is all this related to his passive-aggressive behavior? I finally said enough. I am now taking charge. As the wife it’s been a very difficult decision. I want to be respectful. But I am now taking control of my paychecks to get back on track. It’s never too late, so I’m trying.

    1. So here is what you’re saying, Tina: Your husband expected you to work without a vacation. He spends the money you earn and drives you into bankruptcy on multiple occasions. He’s drained your retirement. Tina, I can’t put any label on that except emotional abuse. Perhaps you have the option that as a wife, he gets to make those decisions and you’re now re-thinking this perspective. Even the most religious among us is likely to argue that a bad steward shouldn’t be a steward at all. You are straightening out your finances, and that’s a great first step. The second would be to separate your money and to take vacations for your own wellbeing. You may not have a lot in common because you’re described how you’ve been exploited. He’s apparently taking good care of himself. And now you are wondering if it is your turn. Sounds it. Good luck!

  4. Thank you for this post. I have been battling passive aggressiveness in my house for quite some time now, and it is really beginning to effect relationships in my family and I am starting to see passive aggressive behaviors exhibited by my kids. How do you help your partner see their passive aggressive behavior. My husband is completely unaware, and when I try to talk with him about it he completely denies it.

      1. I’m in the same situation, and I’m terrified. I’ve tried everything possible to help him understand; please, can you help me?

  5. This is all excellent information. But, two things, I had an excellent upbringing. My dad and I never disagreed. Most all of the info spelled out Passive/Aggressive has been caused by my present wife of 10 years. I was never like this.

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