Anne’s marriage to Francis has always been up and down during periods of financial strain, yet what really kills their closeness and connection is their passive-aggressive behaviour towards each other. Whenever he is upset about something, instead of communicating what he feels or dealing with the issues, he punishes everyone by distancing himself and by giving Anne the silent treatment. Anne then retaliates (again by not saying anything) but instead telling everyone what a bad husband he is and by not cooperating. She stops cooperating by refusing to do things she normally would for him. Like turning down social invitations they had. Anne has even gone as far as refusing to go on holiday with him, make dinner when cooking for the family or no longer getting his side of the family birthday presents.
Typically the passive aggressive husband or wife will punish their spouse without admitting that they are angry. The positive in all of this is they were open to seeing their patterns and willing to make a change. Anne and Francis were willing to listen, take responsibility for their part in the breakdown of the marriage and reverse their behaviour. As both admitted that it didn’t feel good to be acting like this, they knew it was petty and not really them.
It is easy for me to spot passive aggressive patterns in others because I have played most of these games myself before. It was a six years ago now, when after another failed relationship, ended by me… I had to take a look at my patterns and face facts that I sometimes acted in a very childish passive aggressive way. Then acknowledge that passive anger is not an adult way of behaving, it doesn’t help relationships, happiness or self-esteem. It can often lead to the opposite of what you want, where you lose the people close to you and destroy your health and happiness by letting the drama of it all resentment burn inside.
I have various ways I help individuals and couples, deal with resentment or rage they have inside them, as what suits one person may be different for another.
You may wonder why passive aggressive husbands and wives don’t show their anger. It normally comes down to a fear of anger.
Fear of Anger
This often comes from events or perceived experiences early on in life.
1. Fear of Showing Anger
Being scared of showing anger because showing anger led to not being loved or approved of as child. Anger is then associated with rejection or disapproval. Some also fear they will go too far and not be able to stop if they let it out.
2. Fear of Receiving Anger
Fearful that anger leads to violence, physical and emotional abuse. Best to avoid it at all costs.
Both of the above have no basis, there is no reason to fear anger in this way, which is liberating when you acknowledge that.
1. No emotion can cancel another emotion out. Anger and love can co-exist. Love without the safety to allow anger is not love. Love and anger is part of being in an intimate relationship that is free and healthy.
I love this quote from John Welwood “to let ourselves be touched, also involves letting ourselves be scraped.”
2 it is important to recognise that anger is not violence, emotional or physical pain acted out – that is Drama. Anger is feeling a true feeling, drama is acting out and attempting to avoid that true feeling by creating a drama.
So when freeing yourself and your relationship from patterns, you need to examine the drama, the games you are playing to avoid feeling.
Drama blames, scares, represses, silences, punishes, distances, and manipulates. Anger on the other hand is used to communicate, express sadness or disappointment, asks for change but allows the partner to change or not, allows anger without holding on to resentment. That is anger can be let out safely in healthy marriages and move on from without drama.
You cannot hold on to anger for a long-time, it is the shortest of emotions. If you can express it fully, relief from it will follow and you will be able to let go. As David Richo Psychotherapist states “what is left is not anger, but a set of storylines that keep the anger ignited.”
So if you recognise any of these behaviours in yourself when you get angry – silence, deliberate lateness, gossip, absence, refusal to cooperate, rejection or malice to cause pain. You could be displaying passive aggressive behaviour and if you are you need to assess, how is this working for you and your relationships?
The silent treatment, rejection, distance, withdrawal, absence, gossip will NEVER resolve an issue or help you to become closer.
Instead I recommend the following:
1. Look at why you are angry and explore is it justified where is it coming from
2. Recognise your part to play in creating it, by the beliefs you hold about why you are angry. Emotions do not work as a simple cause and effect, X happened I respond Y – in between is our own interpretation of events. What are you thinking or saying to yourself?
3. Express it in an appropriate healthy way, without drama and you will be able to let it go. Avoiding confrontation is not the solution to marital bliss.
This is the anger management work I do in couple therapy, where I encourage those in counselling to take responsibility for their part in the way they feel and the way they deal with it.