The Boomerang Relationship
Passivity, Irresponsibility and Resulting Partner Anger
Author: Lynne Namka, Ed. D.
One of the hardest patterns of behavior for all of us to deal with is passive aggressive behavior. Passive aggressive behavior happens when the person avoids responsibility and attempts to control others to keep them away through his passivity and withdrawal. It is a dynamic born of fear of being controlled, fear of confrontation, hidden anger and an inability to deal straight with people.
Passive aggressive behavior is complex and takes many forms. We all have passive behavior that comes up when we don’t want to deal with conflict directly or do a task. We all hedge, fudge and remain noncommittal on issues some of the time. That’s normal. It’s only when repeated passivity creates severe issues for others setting up continual tension and anger in the household that it becomes a serious problem that should be addressed. Common examples of this habitual, passive retreat style of dealing with confrontation and stress include:
- The person who says one thing but means the opposite.
- The man who acts passive but aggressively gets his own way by not doing what is wanted.
- The boss who squelches his anger then strikes out indirectly. (Perhaps by withdrawing.)
- The woman who says yes when she means no; then gets cold feet and refuses to follow through.
- The teenager who agrees up front then doesn’t do what he agreed to.
- The client who schedules an appointment but does not show up.
- The person who fears self assertion and confrontation, but says no by sidestepping responsibility.
- Anyone in the family who creatively gets out of doing his or her part of the chores.
- The Mr. Nice Guy who puts on the sweet face to agree, then does what he darn well pleases.
- The student who procrastinates with studying and does poorly in school.
- The parent who refuses to discipline the children and insists on the spouse being the ‘heavy.’
- The bored housewife who refuses to clean the house or cook for her family.
- The person who refuses to hear criticism, discuss his problems or read books about the issue.
- The dad who pushes one child hard but allows the other child to get out of responsibility.
- The not ready to be committed man wanting someone there for him but feels entitled to his freedom.
- Any individual who spends his effort into under achieving in school, in relationships and in life!
What all of these people have in common is that the significant people in their life become very, very angry at their resistant behavior. The negative energy in the relationship boomerangs from one partner to the other resulting in an unhappy relationship.
While women can have passive aggressive behavior, this condition is more typically found in men, therefore this article will focus on the typical male version of this dynamic. The typical passive aggressive man has not worked through his anger and power issues with his parents so he replays them in current relationships. His anger comes out in passive way of avoidance.
Psychologist, Scott Wetzler, in Living With the Passive Aggressive Man: Coping with the Personality Syndrome of Hidden Aggression From the Bedroom to the Boardroom, discusses the dynamic that sets up passive behavior. There are many childhood set ups for this way of coping but most often there is a domineering mother and a father who is ineffectual. Or there may be a passive mother who gets out of responsibility by her helplessness. There are power struggles in the marriage with one parent backing off and withdrawing. The boy feels trapped between choosing loyalties at home. He is afraid to compete with his father who is absent either physically or emotionally or perceived as being inadequate. In the typical mother dominant-father passive relationship, the boy learns that the job of being a man in relationship is to escape the woman’s needs and subsequent demands.
The young boy is not allowed to express his feelings and develop a sense of self. He wants his mother’s attention and care yet he resents her continual intrusion. His anger grows but he cannot express it so it becomes submerged and is expressed in an unconscious ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’ He is not allowed to get his way by direct confrontation and competition so he learns to displace his anger through resistance. He learns to use charm, stubbornness, resistance and withdrawal to protect himself in power struggles. He rebels by becoming moody, being an underachiever or developing behavior problems. His self protectiveness and duplicity from the squelched anger and hostility becomes a habit that he plays out with other women he meets. He desperately seeks a woman to meet his needs of being accepted for who he is, but puts her off with small, continual acts of rebellion. He replays the distancing drama of his original family In the relationship.
Agreement, Resistance and Hidden Hostility as Major Characteristics
The man with passive aggressive behavior needs someone to be the object of his hidden hostility. He needs an adversary whose expectations and demands he can resist as he plays out the dance he learned from his parents. He chooses a woman who will agree to be on the receiving end of his disowned anger. He resists her in small ways setting up a pattern of frustration so that she gets to express the anger that he cannot.
The biggest irritant in being with a passive aggressive man is that he doesn’t follow through on his agreements and promises. He dodges responsibility while insisting he’s pulling his weight. He procrastinates, takes on big projects but doesn’t finish them then feels put upon or hostile if someone else tries to finish it. He often ignores reality as to his irresponsibility and withdrawal. He denies evidence, distorts minimalizes or lies to make his version of reality seem logical.
He uses vague language to sandbag the partner. Inconsistency and ambiguity are his tools of choice. He often gives double messages and expects his partner to read his mind and meet his needs saying ‘She should have known how it is.’ He withholds information and has a hidden agenda. He can’t take criticism and makes excuses to get himself off the hook. He sulks and uses silence when confronted about his inability to live up to his promises, obligations or responsibilities. When he doesn’t follow through, he puts the blame on his partner so he doesn’t have to take it and accuses her of having the problem.
The man with this type of pattern shows little consideration of the time, feelings, standards or needs of others. He obstructs and block progress to others getting what they want and then ignores or minimalizes their dissatisfactions and anger. He is silent when confronted as he has never learned to compromise. He may be a workaholic, a womanizer, hooked on TV, caught in addictions or self-involved hobbies.
He may have multiple relationships with women as a way of keeping distant from one fully committed relationship. He is confused about which woman he wants and stays caught between the two women in his life not being able to commit fully to either. He is confused and can’t understand why the women get so angry with him. He feels others demand too much of him so resists in overt and subtle ways and feels deprived if must give in to others. The man who copes with conflict by not being there has strong conflict over dependency. He desperately wants attention but fears being swallowed up by the partner. He can’t be alone and live without a woman in his life, but can’t be with partner emotionally. He’s caught in a Catch 22–wanting affection but avoiding it because he fears it as his destruction. He resents feeling dependent on the woman so must keep her off guard. He makes his partner feel like a nothing through his neglect or irritability but he keeps her around because he needs her. His script is ‘Be here for me, but don’t come too close and don’t burden me with your needs or expectations.’
He has such strong fears of intimacy deep in his unconscious mind so he must set barriers up to prevent a deep emotional connection. He is clever at derailing intimacy when it comes up by tuning out his partner and changing the subject. He must withhold part of himself to feel safe and may withdraw sexually. Closeness and intimacy during sex may make him feel vulnerable and panicked bringing forth his deepest fears of dependency upon a woman. The passive aggressive man lives an internal loneliness; he wants to be with the woman but stays confused whether she is the right partner for him or not. He is scared and insecure causing him to seek contact with a partner but scared and insecure to fully commit.
Due to the wounding from childhood, he is unable to trust that he is safe within the relationship. He fears revealing himself and can’t share feelings. His refusal to express feelings keeps him from experiencing his sense of insecurity and vulnerability. He often denies feelings like love that might trap him into true connection with another human being. He feels rejected and hurt when things don’t go his way but can’t distinguish between feeling rejected and being rejected. He pushes people away first so he won’t be rejected. He is often irritable and uses low-level hostility to create distance at home. The relationship becomes based on keeping the partner at bay. He often sets up experiences to get others to reject or deprive him. He is noncommittal and retreats, feeling put upon and burdened by partner’s requests for more closeness. He becomes a cave dweller to feel safe.
The man with passive aggressive actions is a master in getting his partner to doubt herself and feel guilty for questioning or confronting him. He encourages her to fall for his apologies, accept his excuses and focus on his charm rather than deal with the issue directly. He blames her for creating the problem and keeps her focused on her anger rather than his own ineptitude. When backed into a corner, he may explode and switch to aggressive aggressive behavior then switch back to passivity. He keeps his partner held hostage by the hope that he will change. He may appease her and clean up his act after a blow up for several weeks, then it’s back to business as usual.
The passive aggressive man is the classic underachiever with a fear of competition in the work place. He cannot take constructive feedback from others. His fear of criticism, not following through and his inability to see his part in any conflict keeps him from advancing on the job. He may take three roles on the job or switch back and forth between them.
- The yes man who is afraid to express his opinion then is secretly angry,
- The boss or co-worker tyrant who thinks he’s perfect and tries to discredit or eliminates anyone who threatens his power,
- The victim who is failure prone due to his lack of initiative, follow through and self sabotage.
How the Woman’s Needs Contributes to the Unhealthy Dynamics of the Relationship
Passive aggressive behavior does not happen in a vacuum; it requires a partner to bounce things off of. This problems exists between people–one who resists and one who get frustrated. The need for a woman to choose and remain with a passive aggressive partner is a dynamic that is set up in her childhood. The little girl learns this pattern in childhood observing her parents. One parent withdraws and frustrates the spouse who becomes angry. The little girl learns to take care of others and get depressed when they don’t appreciate it. Desperately she wants the parents to change but cannot express her deep frustration.
When she grows up, the woman unconsciously chooses men who will play out the familiar patterns of her childhood of retreat and attack. She falls for the man’s charm, his neediness or sense of poise and togetherness and ignores his real lack of connection with others. If the man’s hostility and withdrawal is left unchallenged, the woman’s doubt in herself grows. His failures become her failures. The harder she works on the relationship, the cleverer he is in eluding her. Her life is in continual uproar as she mulls over the inconsistencies in daily events. He feels threatened and insecure and withdraws, she gets angry. She gets angry, he withdraws and the unresolved conflict boomerangs between then. Relationships, which do not allow straight talk, frankness and appropriate expression of anger become destructive.
The woman living with a passive aggressive man goes back and forth between three roles–the Rescuer, the Victim or the Manager. Living with the passive aggressive man pushes the woman into frustration and anger as a major dynamic in day-to-day conflict. When she cannot get her needs met, she becomes the Blamer, the Bitch, and the Rager, which then makes the man feel very insecure in the relationship. She is caught in her role as a martyr-victim, codependent rescuer or controlling manager as she does not know how to do anything different. She rides the emotional roller coaster as she always wants more from her man–more commitment, more cooperation and more doing what he says he will do. Her self-esteem erodes as her frustration and anger turn to rage as she feels guilty about the intensity and destructiveness of her aggression. She may repeat choosing passive aggressive men in several relationships until she learns how her own neediness sets her up for relationship failure.
Refusing to Bounce the Boomerang Back – Your Role in Limit Setting and Talking Straight
While it is difficult to be a partner of a man who continually frustrates you with his passive aggressive behavior, there are some things than a woman can do to break into his non-involvement pattern. When the partner understands the problem and attacks it with determination using straight talk, some of the man’s irritating behavior can change. Depending upon the severity of the passive aggressive stance, small inroads can be made. However, there is no easy cure for this life long habit.
Here are some ideas for fair fighting which work with all types of personalities but are especially helpful for dealing with passive aggressive behavior. This approach works for both the withdrawing partner or the defiant teenager. Note–this is no easy task–it takes hard work to be direct and straight to the point at all times. Remember YOU ARE NOT HIS THERAPIST–DON’T TRY TO ANALYZE HIM–JUST SET THINGS STRAIGHT WHEN THEY GO OFF TRACK, THEN DROP THE SUBJECT AND GET ON WITH YOUR LIFE.
Watch how you hook in. Observe your unrealistic expectations for him to change. Don’t demand more than he can willingly give. Hire out projects you think he won’t carry through on. Get realistic–try to figure out where he can realistically change and what is set in stone for him.
Set firm limits for yourself. Stick to them like glue. State them repeatedly. Use ‘I messages’ to share feelings of disappointment. Don’t protect him from your unhappy feelings. Accept no excuses when he says he couldn’t help it. Tell him that it is a choice he made. Tell him how his behavior injures or affects others. Ask him if he would like to be treated this way. When he says he forgot, point out that he remembers things that are important to him. Ask him how he would feel if you forgot to do things important to him.
Pick your fights wisely. Choose your stand wisely focusing the most important things. Overlook his neurotic traits but intervene on those behaviors that are most irritating to you.
Look at your own passive style of avoiding conflict. Watch how you blow off the important things and blow up at small things. Own up when you use passivity to avoid conflict. If he throws it back at you say, ‘This is not about you turning it back on me when I’m honest about my own shortcomings. We are trying to identify patterns that are unhealthy for us. Notice your need to blame me when I’m trying to be straight.’
Make an agreement of ‘No trash talk’ when arguing. Stick to one subject. Don’t allow the argument to go off track. (This is not about ___, we’re discussing ___) Agree to take time out to cool down and return to the topic. Learn stress management techniques to handle your anxiety during the time out period. Read articles on fair fighting to ways to resolve conflict.
Encourage him to make decisions–accept whatever you can during this time of building his confidence about committing himself on small matters. Whenever possible be noncritical of his actions. When you must criticize, be critical of his behavior, not him. Wild recriminations and threats only make him retreat more to his cave of isolation and anger.
When he doesn’t follow through and says, ‘I can’t,’ remind him that it means he won’t because he doesn’t feel like doing what is asked. Ask him to be more honest and say that he doesn’t want to do what you asked. Point out the lack of effort when he is unwilling to do something boring or disagreeable. Make fewer demands on him and only ask for what you absolutely need.
Point out how he distorts the truth and discounts problems that he creates. Use gentle, direct confrontation. Don’t humor, placate or make excuses for his behavior. Challenge double messages and ambiguous plans. Point out his indirect, non answers and sitting on the fence statements. Pin him down on his confusing the issue to save his skin. When he says, ‘You know how I say things I don’t mean.’ Confront him with ‘How do I know which half? When you give me mixed messages I get so confused that I don’t feel loving and close to you.’
Point out his victim messages. He may beat himself up first so you will feel sorry for him and won’t punish him. Show how his self-defeating talk clouds the issue of his not completing his responsibilities. Praise him in areas he does do well often to build up his self-confidence. Stress your commitment to the relationship and how it could be good for both if the two of you work out a process of dealing with conflict. Discuss his fears of being dependent upon you and how that’s related to rebellion. Watch how you invade his privacy and undermine his decision making. Ask him how what you could do to make him feel safer. If he refuses to acknowledge his fears, remind him that we all have fears and fear is constructive in that it helps us learn about ourselves. Tell him that the mature person faces his fears rather than denying them. The only way to deal with fear is to face it–fears faced can be overcome. Tell him, ‘The next time you feel like you are being swallowed up, just watch your feelings. Face them. Sit with them and they will pass.’
When he blames you for not trusting him or says he can’t trust you, point out how he has betrayed your trust in the past. Tell him trust must be earned and you would like greater trust between the two of you. Ask him for a plan to build trust (doing what he says he will do, stop saying yes when he knows he won’t get around to doing what you want, etc.)
If he flares up and blames you when you give information, ask him to look at his feeling put down when given information. Point out his pattern of needing to sulk and how that makes the problems worse. Tell him, ‘I feel the hostility in your walling yourself off. There is nothing we can’t talk about. We can work this out if we keep it on the table. Let’s talk.’ Point out the positive benefits of feedback and criticism as something he can learn about himself. Be willing to receive feedback and criticism yourself. Redefine the relationship as being open to hearing unpleasant things that will promote positive change. Together, learn ways to cope with the unpleasant feelings that being criticized brings up.
Call his attention to every attempt to manipulate or control you through anger. His anger is expressed through withdrawal, sarcasm, irritability and intimidation. Tell him, ‘People who are constantly angry have a lot of fear. Let’s try to figure out what pushes your anger buttons to bring our power struggles out in the open. Show how anger unexpressed may go underground and fester.
Take an anger management workshop together to learn to express uncomfortable feelings in safe, appropriate ways. Bring his submerged rage out into the open by saying, ‘I sensed some hostility in how you dealt with this issue. Could we explore this together?’ Convince him it’s okay to be angry Allow him to be more direct. Learn tactics of fair fighting and using anger in constructive ways.
Learn to deal with your own anger in appropriate ways. Observe your anger reactions, which fuel his determination to out wit you with passivity. Nagging and reopening the subject make things worse. Drop it and move on. Remember that the incorrect expression of anger is at the root of both his and your issues. Your choice daily is to state your anger in direct, firm, fair ways.
Challenge the silent treatment by saying ‘When you refuse to talk with me, I get upset. Both of us angry is poison for our relationship. When you don’t talk to me, I make wild assumptions that further distance us. We are two intelligent people who can talk this out. What do we really want in our relationship–angry silence or problem solving?’ State consequences when he refuses to negotiate and compromise. Get a reality check from someone you trust on options for consequences. Follow through on consequences.
Ask for compromises as a way for the relationship to win. State your compromise, ask him for his. Insist on his making an offer to resolve the problem if he doesn’t like your ideas. Keep the focus on problem solving. Point out that true partnerships work with each other as focused allies working on the issue. Sing the Beatles song, ‘You see it your way, I see it my way, we can work it out. We can work it out!’ Demonstrate how his non-closure of a chronic problem and his non-involvement affects him, you and the relationship. Keeping pushing the concept that the two of you can overcome any problem.
Don’t dwell on disappointment. Don’t take his refusal personally–see it as learned behavior, which he uses to avoid confrontation. Learn stress management techniques to deal with your own hurt and sense of betrayal. Take a meditation or yoga class to learn deep breathing to deal with stress. Learn to observe your own disappointment rather than wallowing in it.
Take courses on couples communication. Go into marriage counseling with someone who understands this passive aggressive man–angry wife dynamic. If he refuses, get help in understanding your own need to continue in an unhappy relationship.
Take responsibility for your peace of mind – Get your own life
If you are expending much time and energy in relationship damage repair then you need to face some hard questions. Honestly ask yourself, ‘Am I seeking intimacy from a man who is incapable of closeness? Am I expecting cooperation and compromise from a man who cannot give it? Is this man workable? Is he putting energy into behavior change or does he put his effort into avoiding his problems?’ If the above suggestions don’t work and you are constantly upset and raging at him, take a good look at your need to live with conflict. If you have done all you can do to correct the situation with no avail and it is affecting your health, consider leaving. Or accept that things will not change and try live a happy life anyway.
Perhaps the hardest skill in life for all of us is to deal with arguments and conflict in productive ways. It’s hard to be straight and acknowledge our irritation, frustration, anger and hostility. Yet dealing with conflict up front is a challenge that can increase self-esteem and help us lead healthier lives.
Most of us didn’t learn how to settle disagreements from our parents and very few of us take a course in conflict resolution and problem solving. Investing some time and energy in anger management and safe anger expression will pay off in benefits tenfold. In the long run, how the man works out his conflicts about his dependency needs and misdirected anger and how the woman learns to counteract passive aggressive behavior determines the success of their relationship.
Straight communication is where it’s at in having a happy life. In a mature relationship both partners interrupt their aggressive and passive aggressive stances and deal with each other in direct ways. Straight communication brings out a depth of intimacy that is comforting and nurturing for both.
Living With the Passive Aggressive Man: Coping with the Personality Syndrome of Hidden Aggression From the Bedroom to the Boardroom, Scott Wetzler, Ph. D. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1992.
I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming The Secret Legacy of Male Depression, Terry Real
How Can I Get Through to You?: Terry Real