Stalemated and Suffering: When The Coupledom (the domicile wherein the relationship resides) reaches a level of pain and powerlessness as a consequence of countless hurts and misunderstandings, a strange pall descends upon it.
Avenues of coping may have been explored: talking, arguing, even seeing a therapist. Perhaps to no avail/relief. Whatever the previous process, couples fall upon the passive-aggressive punch as the unfortunate methodology of choice and an anguished outlet for pain. This is a survival mechanism of sorts for humans, a Darwinian strategy in the psychological realm, to master daunting challenges with new behaviors. And ruptures in relationships qualify as very daunting challenges. However, amongst the many “survival” strategies, the passive-aggressive solution is clearly one of the very worst.
According to Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Daniel K. Hall-Flavin: “Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of expressing your negative feelings in an indirect way — instead of openly addressing them.” That succinct definition captures what is so poisonous about this “defense”, it’s indirectness. Similar to some physical illnesses where much remains hidden, undiagnosable, while quietly wreaking havoc on the body, relationship disorders can be equally insidious. Only when the symptoms become unbearable might there be a move to diagnose and treat the condition. By that time, someone may have moved out, had an affair, become medically ill or resumed using an addictive substance.
Withholding: A common form of passive-aggressive behavior is withholding: sex, affection, information, conversation. Someone in the Coupledom stops chatting, sharing details of family life; someone refrains from conveying essential data such as appointments, social events, school open houses, soccer games; someone “forgets” to share news about changes at work, relative illnesses……perhaps to create a fight, to let some of the pain ooze out; or to message “you don’t count, you don’t exist in my equation anymore, you show no interest in me, so why should I bring you into my world”. Revenge, retaliation, recalibration of emotions; but it doesn’t work because the true target, the painful rupture in the relationship, remains closeted.
Triangulating: Another highly toxic form of passive-aggressive behavior is triangulation, turning other family members, work colleagues or friends into “confidants” while leaving their partner in the dark. Born out of anger, hurt, or a history of failed attempts to be heard, the partner goes elsewhere to vent, to gain sympathy and perhaps to find approval and justification for their feelings.
A Harbor of Powerlessness: This clandestine yet fairly transparent strategy is futile at best, destructive at worse and often leads to more complicating liaisons or betrayals. Anyone who feeds this strategy becomes a co-conspirator, wittingly or unwittingly, and further damages the Coupledom. Perhaps flattered by feeling “important” or propelled by a healing instinct, the third-party provides a detour in the path towards recovery for the Coupledom.
Oh, The Games People Play! Ignoring text, email and phone messages, leaving tasks unfinished or never begun, lateness, innuendos and sarcasms; all these tricky little devices that folks employ to convey, “hey, I don’t give a ……..how you feel, you hurt me!” are recklessly powerful and hideously provocative. The message is, we can’t talk, we don’t know how to translate these rotten feelings into words that will carry any weight, be heard or understood, so we will act……act-out in such a manner that no one can call us on it. Yet at the same time, the hope is that the partner will figure out the puzzle, “will get it and end this war”. These desperate measures reflect the fear that if hurt or anger is expressed, the partner will minimize their pain, flip it into “your” problem, or explode into flames of outrage. A hateful combination of character assassination, humiliation, rejection or ugliness is anticipated, burying the option of honest dialogue under the rubble of subterranean communication, atmospheric shifts, false notes and big empty spaces.
Pride Goeth Before The Fall: Integrity, pride and self-respect are attributes essential to our feeling of self-worth. On a daily basis we are actively involved, either consciously or unconsciously, in keeping our self worth in working order. When our relationships disrupt this effort, we are activated to remedy the problem; in essence, re-establish our psychological balance. The aim of restoring a healthy balance to our self respect vis a vis a relational disturbance while keeping our “pride” intact is where we run amuck. We often confuse pride with vanity, vulnerability with humiliation, honesty of feeling with shame. In fact, the passive-aggressive strategy of communication is a perfect playground of pride gone array.
An Embargo On Affection: Few shipments of affection, respect or kindness can pass through these chilly waters during the passive-aggressive war. What does get through emotionally bludgeons the Coupledom, leaving scar tissue that over time will thicken with repeated assaults, no truce, and a relationship floundering on the shore.
Call A Truce: Someone speak, name the disorder, own your part and invite your partner to do the same. If there is anger, speak its name. If there is hurt, do the same. And if you need help, find an expert to team up with you to take the passive and the aggressive out of the relationship and bring back the love.
©jill edelman, M.S.W. , L.C.S.W, 2010