The problem of passive-aggressive personality disorder

There are few couple dynamics as frustrating and as misunderstood as a passive-aggressive personality disorder. Passive-aggressive men can be incredibly infuriating, and some of the “help” you will find online for living with a passive-aggressive partner is a wee bit over the top.

They will warn you that it is hopeless; “he will never change.” The best thing you can do short of leaving the relationship is to become an expert mind reader and set your expectations exceedingly low.

These frustrated women have a point. They describe their partner’s passive-aggressive behavior as notoriously persistent and robust. They’re right. If the only way they attempt to deal with it is by micro-managing, monitoring, nagging, and criticizing, it can be challenging to change.

The “nice guy”

Women often display intense anger and sputtering rage toward their passive-aggressive partners. Their hot anger is fanned by the complicated nature of the passive-aggressive syndrome. a passive-aggressive personality disorder behavior can show up in an otherwise kind and agreeable personality.

It’s what we call “The Nice Guy.” Men with a passive-aggressive personality disorder tend to avoid direct conflict, and their speech is often camouflaged as cooperative and agreeable. “Just tell you what you want,” they say… “and I promise that I will do it.” That is the infuriating part. He never argues. He always tries to say the right thing. And he hardly ever follows through. 

Wives describe how frustrated they feel when even clearly spelled out, and mutually agreed-upon goals are not met. The passive-aggressive man fawns and placates, while his spouse becomes increasingly agitated and enraged.

  • “Why does he say one thing and do another?
  • “How on earth did he ever get this way?”
  • “What can I do, if anything, to change it?”

Passive-aggressive behavior examples:

  • Agrees with What You Want.. but Later Sulks and is Emotionally Withholding. Passive-aggressive men will go along with just about anything you want them to do. On the surface.
  • At first, you think that you’re both collaborating on a decision. Except you discover later that he really didn’t agree at all because he becomes sullen and withdrawn.
  • Avoids Unpleasantness at all Cost:  The passive-aggressive man will say anything to avoid a disagreement with you. If he doesn’t share your point of view, you will literally be the last to know. He avoids showing his hand. Eventually, you realize that you can’t trust anything he says because he never reveals his own thoughts and wishes.
  • He’s like the character in the 50’s song “Charlie Brown.” The mating call of the passive-aggressive man is, “why’s everybody always picking on me?”
  • He truly believes that he is adrift on the boundless ocean of your unreasonable expectations. He will be late coming home but seems surprised when you are upset. It was his co-worker’s fault for dragging him into a last-minute meeting. What could he do? Wives might suspect malicious intent because he didn’t call while on the way home.

He is not a sadist… He fears conflict

A popular online myth about this type of situation is that he is somehow sadistic, and “enjoys” making you wait for him. That is probably not exactly true. It is more likely that he so profoundly fears an unpleasant conversation, that he would rather postpone the argument. Forever. Or at least for as long as possible, which usually means until he gets home. When you rage at him, he will complain that trying to please both you and his boss puts an impossible demand on him.

“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood,” is another passive-aggressive anthem. When he feels the pressure of conflicting demands, relief comes with the belief that he can resolve his dilemma in any way that seems comfortable. And if you don’t agree… well… tough. Men with a passive-aggressive personality disorder are not alternately passive and then aggressive.. he is simultaneously both passive and aggressiveHis emotional comfort trumps everything and everyone…including you.

His Absent-mindedness is Maddening. Some passive-aggressive men “forget” essential dates like wedding anniversaries and birthdays or a planned weekend getaway.  But it also works the other way around as well. If he wants you to attend a business dinner with his boss, he might get around to telling you about it the day before. It’s hard for wives not to create a narrative of aggression around this “forgetfulness.” But a real fear of conflict over a mixed agenda could be the real culprit.

We’ve learned an important lesson in our intensive couples therapy retreats that most wives are startled by:

The passive-aggressive husband is not only afraid of conflict, but they’re also increasingly afraid of you

He feels hopeless and helpless when he is on your bad side. Your anger and frustration feed an increasingly ambivalent stance in your passive-aggressive partner. It’s easy to miss the fact that the passive-aggressive man is often marinated in fear, and seeks to avoid or delay any interactions that might introduce conflict. This over-arching fear is a critically overlooked feature of a passive-aggressive personality disorder.

“The passive-aggressive man is unsure of his autonomy and afraid of being alone, he fights his dependency needs, usually by trying to control you. He wants you to think he doesn’t depend on you, but he binds himself closer than he cares to admit. Relationships can become battlegrounds, where he can only claim victory if he denies his need for your support.” Scott Wentzler

How did my partner acquire a passive-aggressive personality disorder?

Our families of origin taught us how to be intimate partners. As deeply frustrating as a husband with a passive-aggressive personality disorder may be to live with, he came by it honestly. It goes back, as so many marital problems do, to how his personality was shaped by his family of origin.

A passive-aggressive personality disorder is a coping strategy often found when one parent was exceptionally controlling and domineering. Usually, this was his father. As a young boy, your passive-aggressive husband was subjected to an endless barrage of harsh criticism and judgment. As a result, he was conditioned to become unusually sensitive to blame, and he learned that his thoughts and wishes were irrelevant.  A prickly sensitivity developed, which is one of the hallmarks of passive-aggressive behavior.

The passive-aggressive personality disorder is also reinforced by a heavy dose of painful and anguished life experience. This fosters a skeptical and pessimistic attitude that he will never have his needs met by intimate others.

Passive aggressive men want to protect themselves

Passive-aggressive men tend to have very inhibited emotional lives and have a self-protective stance towards the world. He knows he won’t get what he wants from intimate others… why bother to ask for it in the first place? Ask a passive-aggressive man what he wants, and they habitually respond by telling you in great detail what they don’t want.

Passive-aggressive behavior means you’re allergic to showing up and authentically asking for what would please you. A passive-aggressive personality disorder is not only a way of interacting with an intimate partner… it’s a stance toward life itself. Passive-aggressive men are so tightly constricted by their own diminished expectations, that they sometimes find it hard to initiate any sort of pleasurable activity. “What you want to do is just fine, dear.” Their wives can become incredibly lonely because their husbands are forever just “going along to get along”. They seem completely incapable of showing up authentically with their own thoughts and feelings.

How to overcome passive-aggressive personality disorder

The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy by Dr. Ellyn Bader and Dr. Pete Pearson is one of the few couples therapy models that has some sound and specific advice for couples trapped in the emotional quicksand of passive-aggressive behavior. With effort, a passive-aggressive personality disorder can be changed around. But it is a team effort. You both can change how you respond to each other. It will take some work, but Bader and Pearson’s suggestions are sensible and specific:

When your partner is passive-aggressive

A passive-aggressive personality disorder is so loathsome to women it’s reasonable to assume that men will defend themselves against the blaming label.

Start by making it OK.“You’re passive-aggressive. I don’t like it… but so what? It’s not a death sentence. I’m not perfect either. We can deal with breaking this pattern together.”

Tell your partner that you noticed that he has a hard time speaking up for himself. Tell him you’d like him to think more about what he does want, and less about what he doesn’t. Tell him that you are not walking this earth with the single-minded intent of denying him the simple joys of his manly pursuits.

Hey, if you ask him to do something, and he does it… praise him precisely for what he did right. You probably have no idea how little praise he received growing up. It may sound inconsequential to you, especially if you’re furious with him. But for a man who has been starved for praise during much of his early life, his surprise at being praised by you can be a powerful emotional motivator for change.

Please stop harshly criticizing and nagging. Bader and Pearson remind us that men with passive-aggressive personality disorders are acutely sensitive to nagging. It doesn’t work. It never has. It never will.

If you’re the one with the passive-aggressive behavior

Pay attention to little ways you can express appreciation daily to your partner. Practice being thoughtful every day. How can you show her that you care? How can you show her that she is loved and valued? Show some initiative.. show a capacity to surprise and perhaps even occasionally delight!

You’re going to have to learn how to calm yourself down when she is being critical. This is where science-based couples therapy can help. Lean into her. Listen carefully to what she is asking for. Be curious. Don’t make excuses or become defensive. Only commit to what you are absolutely willing and able to do… but please be willing to do something to address her concern. It’s your marriage that’s on the line. Do you want to be so reliably uncooperative that you end up living alone? I don’t think so. And if you didn’t ask for something…don’t complain if you didn’t get it. She’s not a mindreader.

Right now you are habitually over-promising and under-delivering. Because of your passive-aggressive personality disorder, you’ve lost a great deal of her trust. If you want to stay married, Dr. Pearson says, you might want to reverse that. Start under-promising and over-delivering. Show her that you are trying hard to “mean what you say.. and say what you mean.

Remember to wait for 5 to 10 seconds before you make a commitment. Reflect on the promise you are making to yourself to keep your promises to your partner. 

If you say you will clean the garage on Saturday, then clean the garage on Saturday…and maybe weed-wack the cracks in the driveway as well. Passive-aggressive behavior can be turned around. But it will take patience and sincere effort from both of you.

About our intensive couples therapy retreats

Dr. Kathy McMahon and Daniel Dashnaw, MFT, specialize in working with couples over a single weekend where passive-aggressive behavior is a dominant problem. Because a passive-aggressive personality disorder or “Nice Guy Syndrome” is ingrained in the personality of these men, it takes skilled help to work on helping them to understand why it is in their best interest to begin to change. It’s also essential that wives learn how to get out of the limelight of his disguised hostility.

Our intensive couples therapy retreats are “one couple at a time” couples therapy, not a group experience. This allows a “personal experience” of real intensive help, not generalized advice and platitudes.

Is a passive-aggressive personality disorder stressing your marriage?

Originally published July 3, 2016

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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 have been relentlessly researching how to repair my passive-aggressive husband and our relationship. There is very little information that I have found useful or believable. Your article was right on target. I am going to try to get back to the basic tools you have offered, but I need more. When I first realized what I was dealing with. I responded kindly with all the praise a child might need. It didn’t help much as far as seeing a change in his behavior, but I did notice his eagerness to act on the praise by doing more to receive more praise. He expected to be appreciated for any meaningless thing he did (whether or not I wanted, needed, or expected it), In time I became resentful of his constant need for gratitude because it was never reciprocated. Nor did he ever gain strength in his confidence or begin to realize all that I was sacrificing personally and emotionally to appease him. I have been responding lately with rage, criticism and hopelessness, instead of patience, tolerance, and empathy. This is putting such a strain on me because I have always lived my life by confronting any issues I am uncomfortable with so I can either resolve it or in some way, at least, come to terms with it. This is how I maintain my happiness. Feeling angry and frustrated most of the time does not make me happy. What’s worse is that I am dealing with someone that cannot have an honest conversation if his life depended on it. I’ve tried analogy because I thought if I gave him a way to detach from the issue, he could find a way to relate. He cannot recognize himself in an analogy, even though he gets it if we are talking about someone else. I have tried to explain my vulnerabilities and how his P/A behavior makes me feel unprotected and unsafe and that at the end of the day, that is all a woman wants from her man. I get no glimmer of hope from that method, as he feels no empathy, he only understands his hurt, and can not grasp the feelings of someone else. That’s when I thought he may be narcissistic as well. He is an intelligent man but can’t look within himself at any level. His passive-aggressive patterns are so deeply embedded, I am at a loss. Is there any hope for us? And. more than that, is there any room in his heart for love, beyond his own need to not be alone?

    1. @Vicky, what you described is exactly what I experienced with my soon yo be ex husband. I did not know exactly what I was dealing with I just could not understand how I was not able to get through to him nor get him to see my pain. He is just so unreasonable to deal with. I get taking the blame for stuff and apologizing. It is mentally, physically and emotionally draining. Now we are getting a divorce.

      1. I hear you and even approaching him with love, care and a mellow tone, I’m still told I’m attacking him. So this quote from the article written above made me prickle “Please stop harshly criticizing and nagging. Bader and Pearson remind us that men with passive-aggressive personality disorders are acutely sensitive to nagging. It doesn’t work. It never has. It never will.” In his eyes I’m nagging him….when I try and approach him calmly to discuss my feelings. So it saddens me to read this from a reputable therapist as partners of PA people try so hard to do what ever they can to reach them and connect with them to increase the levels of intimacy.

        1. You are keen to see that it is the interpretation of “nagging” more than actual nagging. “Nagging” could be mentioning something he said he’d do and didn’t. “Nagging” could be the reasonable request to spend intimate time together where both benefit. Don’t be saddened by this quote. Realize that if you ARE nagging, it’s fruitless. Take another tact. “You promised to fix the sink. If it is not finished 5 days before my mother comes, I’m calling a plumber.” Setting your own boundaries clearly, and not getting all caught up in his manipulations, is the point here, I think.

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