Category Archives: Triggers

Passive Aggressive Behavior: A Form of Covert Abuse

By Cathy Meyer

Mature man holding son and arguing with wife - altrendo images/Stockbyte/Getty Images
altrendo images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

What do Passive Aggressive behavior and domestic abuse have in common? When someone hits you or yells at you, you know that you’ve been abused. It is obvious and easily identified. Covert abuse is subtle and veiled or disguised by actions that appear to be normal, at times loving and caring. The passive aggressive person is a master at covert abuse and, as a result can be considered an abuser.

Passive aggressive behavior stems from an inability to express anger in a healthy way.

A person’s feelings may be so repressed that they don’t even realize they are angry or feeling resentment. A passive aggressive can drive people around him/her crazy and seem sincerely dismayed when confronted with their behavior. Due to their own lack of insight into their feelings the passive aggressive often feels that others misunderstand them or, are holding them to unreasonable standards if they are confronted about their behavior.

Common Passive Aggressive Behaviors:

  • Ambiguity: I think of the proverb, “Actions speak louder than words” when it comes to the passive aggressive and how ambiguous they can be. They rarely mean what they say or say what they mean. The best judge of how a passive aggressive feels about an issue is how they act. Normally they don’t act until after they’ve caused some kind of stress by their ambiguous way of communicating.
  • Forgetfulness: The passive aggressive avoids responsibility by “forgetting.” How convenient is that? There is no easier way to punish someone than forgetting that lunch date or your birthday or, better yet, an anniversary.
  • Blaming: They are never responsible for their actions. If you aren’t to blame then it is something that happened at work, the traffic on the way home or the slow clerk at the convenience store. The passive aggressive has no faults, it is everyone around him/her who has faults and they must be punished for those faults.
  • Lack of Anger: He/she may never express anger. There are some who are happy with whatever you want. On the outside anyway! The passive aggressive person may have been taught, as a child, that anger is unacceptable. Hence they go through life stuffing their anger, being accommodating and then sticking it to you in an under-handed way.
  • Fear of Dependency: From Scott Wetlzer, author of Living With The Passive Aggressive Man. “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 battle grounds, where he can only claim victory if he denies his need for your support.”
  • Fear of Intimacy: The passive aggressive often can’t trust. Because of this, they guard themselves against becoming intimately attached to someone. A passive aggressive will have sex with you but they rarely make love to you. If they feel themselves becoming attached, they may punish you by withholding sex.
  • Obstructionism: Do you want something from your passive aggressive spouse? If so, get ready to wait for it or maybe even never get it. It is important to him/her that you don’t get your way. He/she will act as if giving you what you want is important to them but, rarely will he/she follow through with giving it. It is very confusing to have someone appear to want to give to you but never follow through. You can begin to feel as if you are asking too much which is exactly what he/she wants to you to feel.
  • Victimization: The passive aggressive feels they are treated unfairly. If you get upset because he or she is constantly late, they take offense because; in their mind, it was someone else’s fault that they were late. He/she is always the innocent victim of your unreasonable expectations, an over-bearing boss or that slow clerk at the convenience store.
  • Procrastination: The passive aggressive person believes that deadlines are for everyone but them. They do things on their own time schedule and be damned anyone who expects differently from them.

The Passive Aggressive and You:

The passive aggressive needs to have a relationship with someone who can be the object of his or her hostility. They need someone whose expectations and demands he/she can resist. A passive aggressive is usually attracted to co-dependents, people with low self-esteem and those who find it easy to make excuses for other’s bad behaviors.

The biggest frustration in being with a passive aggressive is that they never follow through on agreements and promises. He/she will dodge responsibility for anything in the relationship while at the same time making it look as if he/she is pulling his/her own weight and is a very loving partner. The sad thing is, you can be made to believe that you are loved and adored by a person who is completely unable to form an emotional connection with anyone.

The passive aggressive ignores problems in the relationship, sees things through their own skewed sense of reality and if forced to deal with the problems will completely withdraw from the relationship and you. They will deny evidence of wrong doing, distort what you know to be real to fit their own agenda, minimize or lie so that their version of what is real seems more logical.This is why divorcing a passive aggressive can and often does lead to a high conflict situation with long-term negative consequences for all involved.

The passive aggressive will say one thing, do another, and then deny ever saying the first thing. They don’t communicate their needs and wishes in a clear manner, expecting their spouse to read their mind and meet their needs. After all, if their spouse truly loved them he/she would just naturally know what they needed or wanted. The passive aggressive withholds information about how he/she feels, their ego is fragile and can’t take the slightest criticism so why let you know what they are thinking or feeling?

God forbid they disclose that information and you criticize them.

Confronting the Passive Aggressive:

Beware, if you confront the passive aggressive he/she will most likely sulk, give you the silent treatment or completely walk away leaving you standing there to deal with the problem alone.

There are two reasons for confronting the passive aggressive. One, if done correctly you may be able to help him/her gain insight into the negative consequences of their behaviors. Two, even if that doesn’t happen, it will at least give you the opportunity to talk to him/her in a frank way about how his/her behavior affects you. If nothing else you can get a few things “off your chest.”

Below are some constructive ways to confront someone with passive aggressive behavior:

  • Make your feelings the subject of the conversation and not his/her bad behaviors.
  • Don’t attack his/her character.
  • Make sure you have privacy.
  • Confront him/her about one behavior at a time, don’t bring up everything at once.
  • If he/she needs to retreat from the conversation allow them to do it with dignity.
  • Have a time limit, confrontation should not stretch on indefinitely.
  • If he/she tries to turn the table on you, do not defend your need to have an adult conversation about your feelings.
  • Be sure he/she understands that you care about what happens to them, that you love them and that you are not trying to control them. You are only trying to get to the bottom of your disagreements and make the relationship better.

Inside the Passive Aggressive:

The passive aggressive has a real desire to connect with you emotionally but their fear of such a connection causes them to be obstructive and engage in self-destructive habits. He/she will be covert in their actions and it will only move him/her further from his/her desired relationship with you.

The passive aggressive never looks internally and examines their role in a relationship problem. They have to externalize it and blame others for having shortcomings. To accept that he/she has flaws would be tantamount to emotional self-destruction. They live in denial of their self-destructive behaviors, the consequences of those behaviors and the choices they make that cause others so much pain.

The passive aggressive objectifies the object of their desire. You are to be used as a means to an end. Your only value is to feed his/her own emotional needs. You are not seen as a person with feelings and needs but as an extension of him/her. They care for you the way they care for a favorite chair. You are there for their comfort and pleasure and are of use as long as you fill their needs.

The passive aggressive wants the attention and attachment that comes with loving someone but fears losing his/her independence and sense of self to his/her spouse. They want love and attention but avoid it out of fear of it destroying them. You have to be kept at arms length and if there is an emotional attachment it is tenuous at best.

The only hope for change in the way they deal with relationship issues is if they are able to acknowledge their shortcomings and contributions to the marital problems. Facing childhood wounds, looking internally instead of externally to find the cause of problems in their life will help them form deeper emotional attachments with a higher sense of emotional safety.

Why Breakups are Hard for Codependents.

By Darlene Lancer

rejectionRejection and breaking-up are especially hard for codependents. They can trigger hidden grief and cause irrational guilt, anger, shame, and fear. Working through the following issues can help you let go and move on.

– Codependents often blame themselves or their partner.

– They have low self-esteem, so rejection triggers shame.

– Relationships are of primary importance to them.

– They fear this relationship may be their last.

– They haven’t grieved their childhood.

– Loss and trauma from their childhood are triggered.

Blame

One of the main symptoms of codependency is poor boundaries. Codependents have difficulty seeing others as separate individuals, with feelings, needs, and motivations independent of themselves. They feel responsible and guilty for others’ feelings and actions. Sometimes they project blame when they feel guilty or ashamed, also. This accounts for high reactivity and conflict in codependent relationships. One person’s need for space or even to break-up may not be a consequence of his or her partner’s behavior, and blaming the partner doesn’t make it so. There may be instances where a person’s addiction, abuse, or infidelity precipitate a break-up. Those behaviors reflect individual motivations and are part of a bigger picture of why the relationship didn’t work. No one is responsible for someone else’s actions. People always have a choice to do what they do. If you’re feeling guilty, take the suggested steps in my recent blog, “Self-Forgiveness and Overcoming Guilt.”

Anger and resentment can also keep you stuck in the past. Codependents blame others because they have trouble taking responsibility for their own behavior, including a failure to ask for their needs to be met and to set boundaries. They may have been blamed or criticized as a child, and blame is a learned defense to shame that feels natural and protects them from their overdeveloped sense of guilt.

Low Self-Esteem and Shame

Shame is an underlying cause of codependency stemming from early, dysfunctional parenting. Codependents develop the belief that they’re basically flawed in some respect and that they’re unlovable. Children can interpret parental behavior as rejecting and shaming when it’s not meant to be. Even parents who profess their love may alternately behave in ways that communicate you’re not loved as the unique individual who you are. Shame is often unconscious, but may drive a person to love others who can’t love or don’t love them. In this way, a belief in ones unlovability becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy operating beneath conscious awareness. Some codependents have a shaming, “I’m defective” or “I’m a failure” script, blaming themselves for anything that goes wrong. Low-self-esteem, which is a cognitive self-evaluation, leads to self-attribution of fault and personal defects to explain why someone else wants to end a relationship. For example, if a man cheats, the woman often assumes it’s because she’s not desirable enough, rather than that his motivation comes from his fear of intimacy. Learning to love yourself can heal shame and improve self-esteem. See my book, Conquering Shame and Codependency.

Relationships are the Answer

In the dysfunctional and insecure family environment in which codependents grow up, they develop strategies and defenses in order to feel safe and loved. Some seek power, some withdraw, and others try to win the love of their parents by adapting to their parents’ needs. Stereotypical codependents keep trying to make relationships work – usually harder than their partner – in order to feel secure and okay with themselves. A close relationship becomes the solution to their inner emptiness and insecurity. It’s not unusual for codependents to drop their friends, interests and hobbies – if they had any – once they’re in a relationship. They focus all of their energy on the relationship and their loved one, which helps neither them, nor the relationship. Some couples spend their time talking about it their relationship, instead of enjoying time together. Once it ends, they feel the emptiness of their life without a partner. The adage, “Happiness begins within,” is apt. Recovery from codependency helps people assume responsibility for their own happiness, and although a relationship can add to your life, it won’t make you happy in the long run, if you can’t do that for yourself. It’s important to have a support network of friends and/or 12-Step meetings as well as activities that bring you pleasure whether or not you’re in a relationship.

The Last Hope

Losing someone can be devastating, because codependents put such importance on a relationship to make them happy. Fear is the natural outgrowth of shame. When you’re ashamed, you fear that you won’t be accepted and loved. You fear criticism and rejection. Codependents fear being alone and abandoned, because they believe they’re unworthy of love. They might cling to an abusive relationship in which they’re being emotionally abandoned all the time. These aren’t rational fears. Building a life that you enjoy prepares you to both live single and be in a healthier relationship where you’re less dependent upon the other person to make you happy.

Grieving the Past

Codependents find it hard to let go because they haven’t let go of the childhood hope of having that perfect love from their parents. They expect to be cared for and loved and accepted unconditionally from a partner in the way they wished their parents could have. No partner can make up for those losses and disappointments. Parents aren’t perfect and even those with the best intentions disappoint their children. Part of becoming an independent adult is realizing and accepting this fact, not only intellectually, but emotionally, and that usually involves sadness and sometimes anger.

Past Trauma

It’s a psychological axiom that each loss recapitulates prior losses. You may have had other losses as an adult that compound grief about the current one. Yet often, it’s abandonment losses from childhood that are being triggered. Closeness with a parent was either blissful or you may never had it, or didn’t have it consistently. The intimacy of a close relationship reminds you of intimacy you once had or longed for with your mother or father. Either way, it’s a loss. Codependents may have been neglected, blamed, abused, betrayed, or rejected in childhood, and these traumas get reactivated by current events. Sometimes, they unconsciously provoke situations reminiscent of their past in order that it can be healed. They also may incorrectly perceive rejection, because they expect to be treated the way they were previously.

Grief is part of letting go, but it’s important to maintain friendships and life-affirming activities in the process. Blame, shame, and guilt aren’t helpful, but working through trauma from the past can help you sort out your feelings and know what you feel about the ending of the present relationship. Do you miss the person, what he or she represent, or just being in a relationship? Check out my blog on “Letting Go.”

Letting go and healing involve acceptance of yourself and your partner as separate individuals. Usually, relationships end because partners have individual issues with self-esteem and sham, are ill-matched, or have needs that they’re unable to communicate or fill. Shame often causes people to withdraw or push the other person away. Healing trauma and losses and building self-esteem help individuals move forward in their life and take more responsibility for themselves. Sign up for a free copy of “14 Tips to Letting Go,” on my website, and get my ebook, 10 Steps to Self-Esteem.

©Darlene Lancer 2013