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Just Say No (and Then Why): Processing Passive-Aggression

How to change the role of passive-aggressive behavior in relationships.

Many clients self-identify as being passive-aggressive. For some people, this means they understand how conflict in their relationships exists because of the tension caused by their tendency to express anger indirectly, which was created by their formative childhood experiences. For other people, this just means they get in lots of fights with their partners. My understanding of passive-aggressive behavior has to do with a person’s inability to freely express anger as a child, and the resulting expression of that anger in less direct ways that avoid confrontation but still make that anger felt. This often results in the client being passive-aggressively angry towards their partner while their partner has no clue about the real reason for this anger.

This played out in my work with a client who was well aware of his passive-aggressive tendencies. We had talked about the origins of these feelings, which involved a parent who was full of rage and would overpower any display of anger on the client’s part with his own full force of anger. This made it unsafe for the client to express anger as a child, so he learned to go along but make his anger felt in indirect ways, including sarcasm, humor, irritability, and withdrawal. Now, in his adult relationship with his partner, he could see how acting in the same way as he did growing up is causing conflict and unhappiness.

A common situation where this dynamic played out was when this client’s partner asked him to do something he didn’t want to do. In session he would describe a fight he and his partner had over something involving cooking dinner, or going on a trip, and we would analyze the situation, the conflict, his approach and feelings at the time. After some time working together, we realized that almost all of these fights started with the client agreeing to do something he didn’t want to do. Maybe it was something big, like the decision about where to go on a trip, or something smaller, like not wanting to cook the fish a particular way. So, we had a starting point to focus on.

The question became: Why did this client say yes to something he didn't want to do? His explanation involved a consideration for the feelings of the other person. He didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Saying yes when he really wanted to say no was just a way to avoid conflict. Of course, we reflected on how this might be a short-term solution, but it actually ended up creating more conflict in the long run. Instead of saying no at the outset, he spent a great deal of energy making sure his partner felt his desire to say no in an indirect way, without having to actually say it.

After talking about it a little more, we discovered another reason for saying yes instead of no, and it had to do with his childhood. If he had said no to his father growing up he would have been shamed and attacked. Saying no to his father would have seemed like an act of rebellion, a declaration of war. It was no wonder that this client found it hard to say no to his partner. This was how he’d been programmed to respond in a relationship.

We began to explore the idea of saying no. We decided if his partner asked him to do something he didn’t want to do, he would just say no. Simple, right? It seemed like a good start, but very quickly we ran into a problem. The client’s partner reported frustration with the fact that now he was saying no to everything! So we realized we needed to go a little deeper and examine why. We went from the client saying yes to his partner but not really meaning it and then being passive-aggressive about it (which caused conflict in their relationship), to the client saying no directly, shutting down the conversation (which also caused conflict), and finally to the client saying no and then explaining why he didn’t want to do something. If he was able to explain why he didn’t want to go out to dinner at a particular restaurant, or why he didn’t want to walk the dog at a particular time in the morning, his partner felt involved and considered, which was exactly what she wanted. In fact, the client remarked how it felt weird to be explaining something he felt was obvious, when in fact it was completely not obvious to his partner at all.

This was not as easy a process as it sounds here. People who struggle with passive-aggressive behavior often find it hard to change because deep down it can be so satisfying. It feels good to nurture a source of anger and resentment. It feels good to fight the noble fight against a person trying to keep you down. It feels good to consider yourself to be the one in the argument who’s on the right side of things. But it feels good in the way that an arsonist feels good as he watches a building burn. It’s self-destructive behavior that has been converted via our childhood experiences into a defense mechanism that is an essential part of us. It can be very hard to learn to say no, and then even more difficult to explain why. But in my experience this path leads to greater intimacy and appreciation between people in relationships. If you feel like this chapter describes you then perhaps it’s time to start thinking about say yes less and no more, and most importantly, to talk about why.

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