Passive-aggressive behavior can be stressful and confusing. One day they’re loving and happy, the next they’re giving you the cold shoulder. If you dare to ask what’s wrong, you’re met with dangerous phrases like “Nothing. Everything is just fine” or, even worse, “You know what’s wrong.” 

Passive-aggressiveness is a specific behavior that surfaces when a person avoids directly stating what’s bothering them. Instead, they choose to express their feelings in a deliberately covert manner. This makes being in a relationship with a passive-aggressive person very frustrating and borderline exhausting. Every day can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. Will they be nice to you today, or will you be expected to play mental ‘charades’? 

Passive-aggression is damaging to any kind of relationship. But there are common reasons why an otherwise caring and considerate person may resort to this type of behavior. Often, passive-aggressive people are fearful of conflict and attempt to skirt around it by lashing out in “subtle” ways. They may also be in denial about the fact that they are angry at you. But their inability to stifle those feelings will come through backhanded comments or the dreaded silent treatment. 

You can probably pick up on their hostility instantly, but you may not be all too skilled at handling it. So here you’ll find 4 tactics to do precisely that – but first – you’ll need to make sure what you’re dealing with is really passive-aggressiveness.

Common traits of passive-aggressive people

Denying their anger

Phrases like “I’m not mad” or “You’re just imagining it” are usually signs they’re upset. It’s as if they want you to magically know the reason without them having to tell you. In their mind, by not telling you what the problem is – they’re avoiding conflict. But on the outside, their cold shoulder and silent treatments are causing conflict on their own.

Avoiding communication

“Fine. Whatever” is something you may receive in response to your attempt at starting a conversation about it. They don’t want to express anger directly, so they will promptly shut down any chance of engaging with it.

Sarcasm and backhanded compliments

Passive-aggressive people like to use sarcasm and backhanded compliments to indirectly express hostility. You may hear them say things like “You’ve done so well – for your level of education” or “You can still do it – even at your age”. If you show any signs of taking offense, they’ll play the victim with “Can’t you take a joke?”.

Intentional inefficiency

Stubbornness, doing chores in an untimely manner or doing them wrong altogether are common traits of passive-aggression. They may pretend they didn’t know something key to performing the task properly. They could buy you a gift they know you can’t use, serve you a meaty meal when you’re trying to go vegetarian, or just leave their socks on the floor after you specifically asked them not to. They’re masters at finding the tiniest details only you would notice and take offense over.

How to deal with a passive-aggressive relationship

Maintain your distance

Sometimes the most effective approach is to ignore their passive-aggressive behavior altogether. They won’t get much out of it if you’re not paying attention. They may end up giving up simply due to your lack of reaction.

Set boundaries and stick to them

According to the Huffington Post, it’s important to set hard limits and stick to them. If they’re always late, tell them that if they’re late again you’ll just go on without them. If they’re being highly critical, let them know you’re not going to tolerate it and will give them space until they’re ready to be respectful. 

Be direct, but not confrontational

If they refuse to address their behavior, then you can do it for them. But the key here is to avoid blaming them or making accusations like “You always do this!”. Instead, acknowledge their thoughts and validate their feelings. You don’t necessarily have to agree with them, but you can still make it clear what they’re doing, how it’s affecting you, and what you can both do to resolve it.

Get professional help

If nothing is working, a trained mental health professional can offer advice on how to avoid enabling passive-aggression. Sometimes we’re blind to our own behavior, so having someone else weigh in can really open your eyes. You could even go to therapy as a couple so you can both work towards a happier, healthier relationship

Passive-aggression is a prime example of why suppressing feelings is generally an unhealthy move. Stifled emotions nearly always come out in some way or another, so it is often better to communicate about them together before they become more powerful than they need to be. A passive-aggressive relationship is incredibly frustrating, but with the right set of tools, it can be dealt with.