How To Deal When Your Partner Is Being Passive-Aggressive

Photographed by Lula Hyers.
Telling your partner, "I'm fine" when you're not is one of the least-fine ways to communicate in a relationship (even though many people are guilty of doing it). If you're on the receiving end of a backhanded dig like this, it can be incredibly frustrating: How are you supposed to react when you can tell your partner is just being passive-aggressive? Well, that depends on your relationship, but it can be helpful to understand a little bit about why some people tend to be passive-aggressive in the first place, says David Ludden, PhD, a psychology professor who focuses on the psychology of language.
"People adopt passive-aggressive behaviors because they feel unable to deal with conflict in a direct manner," Dr. Ludden says. Ultimately, a passive-aggressive partner is trying to communicate their needs to you, but they don't feel safe doing it directly. Some people are just taught not to express their emotions from a young age, while others might resort to passive-aggressive behaviors because they don't know how to respond appropriately when someone is upset or defensive, Dr. Ludden says. Either way, "you need to work with [your partner] in a supportive way to identify what the problem is and how to resolve it," he says.
Ignoring your partner when they're being passive-aggressive won't get you anywhere, because it will just reinforce their behavior, Dr. Ludden says. "But you also don't want to respond to the surface level features of your partner's passive-aggressive behavior," he says. You might be tempted to call out your partner for being passive-aggressive, but labeling their actions might make them feel even more defensive. Remember: Acting passive-aggressive isn't always a cry for attention or a purposefully immature behavior. According to Dr. Ludden, it's often a result of an inability to directly express oneself. So, when someone is acting passive-aggressive toward you, it can be helpful to examine the situation and see if there's an underlying issue that needs to be addressed instead.

Ignoring your partner when they're being passive-aggressive won't get you anywhere, because it will just reinforce their behavior.

In general, there are two ways that people tend to act passive-aggressively in intimate relationships, Dr. Ludden says. One is by not following through with promises, he says. For example, your partner might "forget" to help you with a project that you've been bugging them about for months or procrastinate making plans for an event that you both agreed to attend. The other way is by stonewalling or giving you the silent treatment, he says. These behaviors can be exhausting to deal with, because they don't actually get to the root of the problem.
So, how do you figure out what's really wrong? If it feels like the situation is too tense, Dr. Ludden suggests writing out how you feel in an email or letter. "The effort of writing out your feelings can help you think more critically about them," he says. If writing isn't your style, you could try telling your partner how you feel using "I" statements ("I feel helpless when I don't know what's going on," versus, "You always get this way and don't tell me what's wrong). Then, have them repeat exactly what they heard to make sure you're both on the same page and not misinterpreting each other (this is an Imago therapy technique that can be really helpful for couples working through conflict).
These are just suggestions, and how you choose to communicate depends on your individual situation, but for the most part your goal should be to work out the relationship issues in a calm, supportive, constructive manner, Dr. Ludden says.
That said, sometimes passive-aggressive behavior is an ingrained habit in your relationship, which can be a sign that you both should consider counseling, Dr. Ludden says. "[In order] to help your partner, you have to have the emotional strength to work through their defenses," he says. And sometimes that requires seeing a professional who can help you both discuss your individual issues in a safe environment.
Ultimately, passive-aggressive habits may be common, but they're definitely not healthy. You're not a mind-reader, and shouldn't be expected to decode your partner's behavior if they're not being straightforward with you. And to that same point, you can't change the way that people act, but you can change the way that you react to them. The best thing you can do as a partner is be patient, and give your partner space to express their feelings — whether they're "fine" or not.

More from Sex & Relationships

R29 Original Series