When Joe’s wife asks him to do something around the house, he always seems to go along and agrees to do it. But it rarely happens. He forgets about it, or he does a little bit of it but doesn’t finish the job. Sometimes he does the job in a way that isn’t really what she wanted. He feels vaguely uneasy about this, but it keeps happening. His wife, Marge, is getting increasingly angry about this. She wonders if he cares for her and feels that she can’t trust him. She has a vague feeling that he is getting back at her, but she can’t explain this. He says he just forgets, and he would really like to give her all the things she wants.

This is an example of passive-aggressive behavior. What is really going on with Joe, and with Marge? Let’s start with Joe. He has a part that is a Pleaser. This part of him really wants to make Marge happy by doing everything she asks. It is afraid of not pleasing her. It is afraid that she will become angry and judgmental, that she will withdraw from Joe and reject him. So when Marge asks Joe to do something, the Pleaser doesn’t consider whether or not he wants to do it or has the time. It automatically says “Yes.” It wants to protect Joe from the pain of being judged or rejected by Marge. And Joe isn’t aware of what is going on.

However, this is only half the story. There is another part of Joe that is a Rebel. This part has very different feelings about Marge’s requests. First of all, the Rebel doesn’t see them as requests. It feels that Marge is demanding things from him. It resents Marge for pushing Joe around and telling him what to do. And the Rebel is even more resentful when Joe gives in. It feels angry at Marge and wants to say, “No. Don’t tell me what to do. Leave me alone!” However, the Rebel is overruled by the Pleaser. It doesn’t get to defy Marge or be angry with her because the Pleaser would be terrified about what would happen. So the Rebel is pushed underground. It doesn’t get to act, and Joe doesn’t even know that he has a part like this. The Rebel is completely unconscious.

But the Rebel is not without some power. Even though it can’t rebel directly, it can do it indirectly. Even though it can’t be aggressive directly the way it would like, it can be aggressive passively. It can keep Joe from giving Marge what she wants. It may make Joe forget what he has promised to do. It may make Joe do a job in a way that will frustrate Marge. The Rebel knows how to get back at Marge in an indirect way that Joe isn’t even aware of.

Joe has two parts that are at odds with each other. They are polarized about the best way to deal with Marge. The Pleaser takes charge directly when Marge asks him to do something, and the Rebel takes charge indirectly later on.

Through IFS, Joe could get to know each of those parts and what they are each trying to do for him. He could connect with the Pleaser and help it realize that he could handle Marge’s response if he didn’t always please her. And he could connect with the Rebel to help it realize that Marge isn’t trying to control him. Once these parts are conscious and learn to trust Joe, his pattern of passive-aggressive behavior will be much easier to change. He could learn to decide for himself if he wants to do what Marge asks, or collaborate with her in deciding what should be done, rather than just feeling obliged to obey her. Then when he does agree to do a task, he will be more engaged in the decision and have no trouble carrying through with it. If there is something about Marge’s attitude that is controlling, he could talk to her about this in an assertive way without being either pleasing nor aggressive.

Now let’s look at Marge. I have found that frequently when a man is being passive-aggressive, his wife may, in fact, be too invested in having things her way. Often this is her side of the dance they do together. So if you are reading this article because your husband is passive-aggressive, I advise you to consider if you are being too controlling. You may inadvertently be triggering his frustrating behavior by the way you make demands, or by your expectation that you know best (and he’d better do what you want). This is a common dynamic for couples—a passive-aggressive man and a controlling woman. You may be able to contribute to a resolution of this difficulty by exploring what is behind your need to be in charge.

Author's Bio: 

Jay Earley, PhD, is the author of Self-Therapy, The Pattern System, and many other books. See www.patternsystem.com. He is the creator of Self-Therapy Journey, an interactive online tool for psychological healing and personal growth, www.selftherapyjourney.com, which has a module for Passive-Aggressive behavior.