“He really makes me angry,” Kate said to me during a recent counseling session. She had been preparing to ask her husband to join her in counseling, but noted, “I want to become stronger first! He can be incredibly demanding.”

“What do you mean by ‘stronger,’” I asked her.

“He gets me to doubting myself, with my mind spinning in circles,” she said sadly. “I love Cal, but he punishes me when I don’t agree with him.”

“Whoa,” I said, shocked by her admission. “Punishes you?”

“Well,” she answered slowly. “It sure feels like he’s punishing me.”

“Please explain,” I said. “A man who sets out to punish you because you disagree with him is pretty serious business.”

“I’m not even sure how to describe it,” Kate continued. “That’s why I’m here. I feel too close to it to even tell you what he is doing.”

“Please try,” I persisted. “Just list some of the things he does.”

“Okay,” Kate said.

Kate proceeded to list behaviors that fell into a constellation of behaviors we’ve come to call passive-aggression—aggression expressed indirectly. Men, (as well as women) displaying this behavior, have the ability to make us feel like we’re doing something wrong, while they continue acting in ways that are extremely unhealthy. They create chaos and then point the finger at us.

Let’s consider passive-aggressive traits and note their impact as well as solutions.

1. Obstructionism: Like children who are oppositional, the passive-aggressive man finds way to block progress. Hating to be hemmed in, he may agree to something, he will do things at his own pace, refusing to cooperate with how and when you’d like things done.

The impact, of course, is chaos. His refusal to be “cornered” maintains distrust and impedes cooperation. You’re never certain where you stand, and never fully know what you can expect from him. All the while he points a finger at you, claiming innocence.

2. Fear of Intimacy: The passive-aggressive male is guarded and mistrustful. While he may say he wants to be close, he’ll sabotage any efforts to spend meaningful time together. When together, he is unable to talk about his feelings, or share intimate details of his life.

The impact is a sense of distance, though you may be unsure of what is causing the distance. He pushes away from close and personal encounters, but denies he is doing anything to sabotage intimacy.

3. Playing the Victim. The passive-aggressive man refuses to take responsibility for his behavior, protesting loudly “You’re the crazy one.” Feeling maligned, misunderstood and mistreated, he again points the finger of blame back at you.

It can be tough to gain a firm footing when he blames you for everything. In fact, the passive-aggressive man puts his “spin” on events so as to make himself look innocent, while you appear the villain. As you can imagine, this feels chaotic and leaves you feeling angry, leaving many issues unresolved.

4. Making Excuses for His Behavior. He’ll likely make excuses for any wrongs he has committed, leaving him again feeling innocent. If you persist with holding him accountable, he is likely to make even more excuses and then blame you for refusing to let the issue go.

This “dance” can make you feel very crazy. You know what he did was wrong. You believe he even knows this but refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Round and round the conversation goes, with no clear end in sight.

5. Confusion Creator. The passive-aggressive man is the master of creating confusion and chaos. By using mixed messages, pouting and playing the victim, he creates chaos in every relationship. You’re never sure whether you see things clearly, or whether he is, as he purports, the victim. You live in a world of confusion.

The passive-aggressive man is a confusion creator, and if you remain “hooked,” you will spin around in that cycle of confusion as well. He remembers things different from you and if you try to get him to see “the truth,” you’ll be hooked in his world of confusion. He twists the facts, rewrites history to put a positive spin on his behavior. This, however, makes you feel crazy.

So, how are you going to stay clear, calm and connected with a passive-aggressive man? It will not be easy, but it can be done. You must master a few strategies.

First, understand passive-aggression. You cannot remain clear and calm if you don’t understand what is happening. If you remain reactive, you’ll be dancing from one encounter to another. Notice what is happening. When and where do you get hooked? What does he say that provokes you into snapping back aggressively? Notice these patterns and determine to remain clear about what is happening.

Second, determine to be active, not reactive. Choose how you will respond to him. In the face of his passive-aggressive actions, choose to be clear with him. Let him know how you see things. Refuse to get into a power struggle with him. Don’t try to change his mind or make him see things the way you see them. Be in charge of yourself, knowing what is true for you.

Third, keep agreements simple and doable. Create agreements that are likely to be kept by him. Choose your battles carefully. It is far better to have a simple life, with simple agreements, than try to enforce complex agreements that he will sabotage.

Fourth, maintain clear and firm boundaries. Don’t allow him to manipulate your point of view. Seek specific agreements, even writing them down for clarity. Reiterate those agreements with him to ensure clarity. When he violates boundaries, which he will do, state your feelings clearly and consistently.

Finally, celebrate modest victories. Understand you cannot make him do anything. However, you can introduce accountability into the relationship. Clarify how his behavior impacts you, asking for exactly what you need. Notice how even small victories create a positive connection with him.

Are you in a relationship with a passive-aggressive man? Have you discovered strategies that others might find helpful? Please feel free to email me at TheRelationshipDoctor@Gmail.com or see information about The Marriage Recovery Center on my website.

July 14, 2009


Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.