In my last post I talked about Avoidance, and how avoidance is one of the most destructive things you can do. It limits quality of life and personal happiness while also doing damage to relationships.
Relationships require communication – even (perhaps especially) about the difficult things in life, while avoidant people withdraw or check out when confronted with anything difficult or uncomfortable.
The avoidant approach is, why deal with something if you can ignore it? After all, if you ignore something long enough it will just go away on its own right?
Spoiler alert – it doesn’t. Actually, things just get worse. And here’s one of the main reasons why…
Avoidant people may do their best to avoid conflict, and they may “think” they are succeeding. But everyone has emotions, and feelings; and eventually these frustrations find a way out. But since they have never developed healthy ways to express and deal with emotions and feelings, they find “subtle” ways to express them.
Ways that are very, very damaging.
The Four Horsemen
In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work John Gottman says he can predict with a fairly high degree of accuracy whether or not a couple will succeed or fail. And one of his beliefs is the existence or amount of conflict itself has nothing to do with the success of a relationship.
What matters is HOW a couple fights.
He describes the following “corrosive negative behavior patterns” as being the strongest predictors of divorce, or as he put it – “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.
- Criticism: No relationship is perfect, and we all have things about our partners that make us unhappy. Complaints are fine and are about behaviors you want to change. A criticism is a way of expressing the complaint that becomes an attack on the other person. With criticism, the issue isn’t the behavior – it’s the other person.
- Contempt: This is the use of things like threats, name calling and insults. Contempt is when there is an air of superiority, and the offending person focuses on their partners mistakes instead of appreciating them and seeing the good. The existence of contempt is the highest predictor or divorce in a marriage
- Defensiveness: This is when any attempt at discussion of issues becomes interpreted as an attack. When people get defensive, they attempt to “protect themselves” by doing things like counter-attacking, denying, or re-directing the conversation away from the topic at hand. There is no acceptance of the issue, or acceptance of responsibility. If you think back to my post on accountability, defensiveness is the first few steps – denial, blaming/justifying
- Stonewalling: This is when in a discussion the listener emotional withdraws or “checks out” on the discussion. They likely are feeling emotionally overwhelmed, or flooded by the discussion; so they don’t engage. They may listen, but they don’t focus or give any clues they are actually paying attention. For the person trying to have a discussion, they feel ignored.
The first two are predictors of early divorce (supposedly 5.6 years after the wedding), while the next two predict later divorce (16.2 years after the wedding). Defensiveness and Stonewalling are the hallmarks of avoidance, and they are classic signs of passive aggressive behavior.
What is Passive Aggression?
Passive aggression is perhaps the worst thing you can do in a relationship. If you aren’t familiar with passive aggression, here’s another term for it – treating your partner like crap (I’m not sure if that’s the official scientific term. If not it probably should be).
What does passive aggression look like?
I found a great description of it at this site:
Passive Aggressive behavior can be defined as conduct which is conflict avoidant. Anger is not openly expressed but manifests itself by way of covert resistance, procrastination, withdrawal, sarcasm and more.
Broken agreements, withholding emotional support and/or sex, sabotage, sulking and silent treatment are all common features of passive aggressive behavior.
Many Passive Aggressive people simply refuse to contemplate that they might be doing anything wrong and simply do not believe their conduct to be anything untoward.
Basically it’s “conflict avoidant” behavior, where the real feelings of conflict (anger/frustration/resentment) leak out in other ways.
Passive Aggressive Behaviors
Here are a number of common passive aggressive behaviors (cobbled together from a number of sources):
Refusing to say what you mean. This is when someone will say one thing (usually what they believe the other person wants to hear) even when they don’t actually mean it. Sometimes they will say Yes when they really mean No. Or they will say “We’ll See” instead of saying No outright. But then they show what they “really mean” through their behavior.
Putting on a false face. This is similar to the previous one, but at a bit different. Passive aggressive people will often appear to be kind and agreeable, while inside they are actually hurt, angry or resentful.
Afraid to be alone, but also afraid of being dependent. There are difficulties with communication due to a fear of rejection that make relationships difficult. At the same time emotional walls are built to keep close relationships at a distance because there is a fear of dependence. Passive aggressive people do want relationships, but only on their terms. There is a strong need for control.
Learned Helplessness/Victimization. When conflict arises (which it will), the inability to deal with it often leads to anger and resentment. However instead of recognizing the problem is due to a lack of communication, it is perceived as being the other persons fault. “They” did this, or that. They caused the conditions that led to the anger (which of course is seen as justified). There is no ownership by the passive aggressive person. They are a victim of others being hard on them, unreasonable or expecting too much.
Resenting Demands/Expectations of others. Relationships have expectations, and these expectations form the boundaries of relationships. Passive aggressive people will often view others demands/expectations as unfair or unjust. But rather than expressing this and trying to find a path that works for both people they will hold things in and allow resentment for the other person to build.
Procrastination. Everyone procrastinates sometimes, but for a passive aggressive person procrastination is a form of control and punishment. They don’t like “having” to do things, especially when this is related to the expectations of others. So they won’t. But instead of saying they won’t, they make them wait and come up with excuses on “why” they haven’t been able to. When someone calls them out on their lack of follow through on things they either promised of agreed to, the passive aggressive person will often find ways to turn it around and blame the other person for why things aren’t done.
Not giving honest answers. When dealing with uncomfortable topics passive aggressive people will usually try to change the subject. When they can’t, they often say a lot of things without actually saying anything. Often no real answer is given. Or instead of being truthful, they will withhold information, and be selective in what they say and how they respond. They may not “lie”, but honesty is not just about the words you say. The ones you don’t say are often just as important.
Sulking/Withdrawing/Pouting. When things aren’t going their way, or they are unhappy about a situation passive aggressive people will shut down emotionally and withdraw. They will withhold affection, kindness (and empathy really) as a way of “showing displeasure”. Again, this is about punishment and control. Silent treatment and “walking away” are common ways of “dealing” with issues. This may sound a lot like tantrums. Well guess what, they are. This sort of behavior is basically an adult tantrum by someone who has never learned to communicate and deal with emotion in a healthy way.
Keeping Score. Passive aggressive people have a very difficult time letting things go. We all have times people hurt or disappoint us. Instead of confronting the issues, dealing with it and letting it go; passive aggressive people will hold onto things. Not only do they not let go, they also often feel someone doing something to them entitles them to do something in retaliation/response. In relationships (especially ones that matter to us) taking this approach is destructive, and will only escalate things.
Silent Treatment. This is one of the hallmarks of passive aggression, as well as being one of the great killers of relationships. When someone is upset they withdraw – emotionally and/or physically. Passive aggressive people often tell themselves they do this to ensure they don’t “say something they will regret”, and there is some truth to that. But they never return, and never deal with the issue at hand. They avoid it, and this becomes both a way of dealing with things as well as a form of punishment and control.
Take a good look at the items in the above list.
I’m pretty sure any rational person will accept these are all COMPLETELY TERRIBLE things to do to your partner. Hell, they’re terrible ways to treat people who you DON’T like; never mind ones you are supposed to be building a life with.
That said, we ALL do these things once in a while. But people with healthy communication and conflict skills realize they are being an asshole when they do it, while passive aggressive people don’t seem to see a problem with it – or they have a long list of excuses and reasons (usually someone elses fault) as to “why” they are doing it.
At least at some level though, even the people exhibiting these behaviors have to KNOW these are self-destructive behaviors that are damaging their relationships; as many of these behaviors are selfish, petty and cruel. These behaviors don’t belong in a “loving relationship”.
Why willfully engage in behaviors that at some level they know are destroying their relationships?
Why do it?
An Inability to Cope
There are two main reasons people are passive aggressive.
- They don’t realize they are doing it
- They don’t know any other way.
One thing to be clear on…
…when you look through these behaviors it can make it seem like passive aggressive people are horrible monsters. They’re not.
Often they are good, kind people “most” of the time. They simply been taught conflict is bad, so they have spent their lives repressing feelings and negative emotions, and have never learned how to effectively communicate and deal with conflict. As a result they are emotionally crippled, and shut down in the face of negative emotions.
Passive aggressive behavior often goes hand in hand with anxiety and avoidance, because at it’s root it is about a fear of conflict, and a feeling of powerlessness and helplessness that comes with being unable to deal with conflict.
Conflict happens though. It’s a natural (and needed) part of life. So passive aggressiveness is really about an inability to cope with the reality of life. This is why many passive aggressive people try to present an image of perfection. It allows them to create and escape to a fantasy world where conflict doesn’t exist.
At the beginning I talked about John Gottmans book, and how he believes there are behaviors that are good predictors of divorce. Passive aggression is one of the biggest ones.
Well, what does a “healthy” relationship look like according to him? Gottman says the signs of happy couples are:
- Couples who behave like good friends and handle their conflicts in gentle, positive ways.
- Couples who are able to repair negative interactions during an argument, and are able to process negative emotions fully.
See the key words in those two things?
Deal with negative emotions.
These are things the avoidant and passive aggressive person either can’t or won’t do.
There is good news though.
People are not avoidant or passive aggressive by nature. It is a communication and coping style that is learned. Because of this, it is also something that can change.
I’ve written on change in the past, and although it’s not an easy thing to do is CAN happen. But for it to happen, the person making the change needs to truly understand how their behavior is hurting them. They need to face the mirror, and realize the way they have approached things has not been working.
If you are someone who defaults to avoidance or passive aggression as your default coping mechanisms, here’s something to consider:
Avoidance and Passive Aggressive behavior are among the most damaging behaviors one can have. When you look up “Toxic Behavior” the behaviors listed are usually lists of both passive aggressive and avoidant behavior.
If having your default coping mechanisms defined as “toxic” doesn’t convince someone to try and change, I not sure what will. However avoidance and passive aggressive behavior ARE toxic. They are behaviors we all should be aware of, try to recognize when we do, and try to minimize.
For our relationships, our happiness and for those around us.