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Passive-Aggressive Example
Living with Blaming and Guilting Mother (Part 1)

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The following is an example from website readers of passive-aggressive encounters they have experienced. The suggested responses are not personal advice as a full evaluation of the situation is not available. Also, the suggestions may not work in every situation but are to give you an idea of possible ways to respond. For more, read: Crazy-Makers: Passive-Aggressive People and 7 Rules and 8 Methods for Responding to Passive-aggressive People

Question: My partner's mum is staying with us and she's quite PA and I'd love to know better ways of dealing with some of what she does...

A) She blamed my partner for not telling me her plans had changed (in the last thirty minutes) and that she did want me to include her for dinner after all. But she didn't tell him she now wanted to eat but only that she was leaving later. She didn't tell me (the person cooking) anything. We offered to split what we had but she made a fuss whilst making a sandwich and saying "I suppose you don't want to share!" Sporadically through the next hour she'd sigh and say to herself "it wouldn't have taken you both MUCH effort to pad out the meal" and "you've got to start passing messages."

B) Partner's mum is upset dishwasher wasn't run overnight. She complains to my partner loudly enough that I can hear: "I know she doesn't CARE about keeping the house tidy but how could anyone NOT run the dishwasher? Why on earth WOULDN'T you?"
Partner: "That's a little unfair when you make these general statements. I know she cares and she must have had a reason."
Mum: "Why on earth wouldn't you! It's just common sense!"
(In fact I hadn't run it because she'd often complained about running it when it wasn't totally full and had even unpacked the top row to demonstrate that you could jam one more glass inside. This time the dishwasher had five or six spaces.)
Partner: "I would like you to think about maybe not making general statements. It upsets people."
Mum: "I'm not allowed to think anything! I've just got to shut up and keep my thoughts to myself. You want me gone. You make it totally clear you HATE having me here!"
Partner: "We like you here. I just want you to know people feel hurt if..."
Mum: "I'm not ALLOWED to say anything!!" Slams door, sulks in room. We leave her to it. Returns two hours later to scream at partner that he's a hateful (expletive)! Slams sitting room door. More sulking.

C) Partner's mum recites lists of what she does for us to her other children. She makes it sound as if we want her running after us and she's totally put upon. We'd rather tidy after ourselves but can't stop her doing this stuff:
Partner (working from home in personal office): "I don't like you coming in here every hour or so to see if I've got any cups. I'll take this cup once I've finished what I'm working on."
Mum: "I'll just take it."
Partner: "I don't want you to. It's distracting and I feel bad like you're slaving after me."
Mum: "I suppose you WANT the house to turn into a sty. You don't mind the house being DISGUSTING."

D) She has a lot of esteem wrapped up in having been an amazing mother and homemaker. If I choose to do a home-based task differently from how she would have, she will nitpick and point out the many flaws with doing it that way. She'll also say I did it that way because I "don't really CARE" and "that's a lazy way" to do that. Anything that's done her way is just "the way it SHOULD be done" and "why would anyone NOT do it that way!" Despite this she claims she doesn't get ANYTHING done her way although every room in the house is layed out how she wanted and most home things are done her way. When she returns from holidays she spends the next week pointing out things I've missed or supposedly done wrong: "I see it was too hot to mow the lawn!" (I'd mowed three days earlier). "I see no one could be BOTHERED to buy a new salt shaker! You guys!" Shakes her head. Salt shaker is still 3/4's full.

Response: As this is a very involved situation because it is a pattern of behavior that is quite hurtful and frustrating, I need to discuss this in several parts. In this post, I will point out some of the general issues to consider. Later, I will discuss some specific ways to address the different situations.

This mother is exhibiting classic PA behavior of the blaming and guilting type. As I've written before, it is important to understand the reward in the behavior to help determine an appropriate response. In other words, this couple needs to determine how the PA behavior is rewarded and stop rewarding the mother's behavior.

This concept of reward can be confusing as it does not seem that conflict could be rewarding. However, it can be in several ways. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, way this behavior might be rewarded is that the mother gets what she wants. This appears to be so when the writer describes how she needs to approach a simple task such as loading a dishwasher. Instead of just doing the dishes she considers how the mother might react. The fact that she is considering the mother's potential reaction indicates that the mother probably is rewarded for her behavior by getting her way. To address this type of reward the writer needs to determine how she would do things if she didn't consider the mother's possible reaction and then do it that way. Walking on eggshells is not going to prevent conflict. In fact, by always being fearful of the mother's potential reaction and giving into her, the writer is rewarding the PA behavior which is likely to increase it rather than decrease it.

Another way the mother may be rewarded is through the escalation of the conflict. Again, conflict may not seem to be rewarding to the emotionally healthy person. However, conflict can be a release of emotions as well as self-esteem building (in an artificial way). This mother can present herself as a martyr to other people and get positive attention in return which can allow her to feel better about herself. In addition, if there are negative emotions she is not confronting such as grief or loss in her life, the escalation of conflict can allow her to release those emotions. Certainly, this is not a healthy release of emotions as it displaces the emotions onto the other person but it still feels rewarding to the system. In other words, she feels better after the release and this couple feels worse. A classic example of displacement of emotions is that a man is yelled at by his boss, he comes home and yells at his wife, she yells at their son who then kicks the dog.

As I've mentioned in other posts, the PA person escalates the conflict in such a way that they can blame the other person. By doing so, they can deny responsibility and view themselves as the victim rather than the perpetrator. This type of approach allows them to feel justified in their behavior. By not engaging in a way that allows for the escalation, the couple forces the mother to have to deal with her emotions rather than displacing them.

This couple must feel they are being held hostage to this mother's behavior. She is sharing living expenses with them so from their perspective they do not have the power to enforce limits on her. Even if they were in a different position, they may desire to maintain a relationship with her. In any case, the first step is understanding her behavior. My article Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally! may aid in this process. In particular, most people with mean behavior are motivated by their own personal issues. For instance, one clue in this situation is "She has a lot of esteem wrapped up in having been an amazing mother and homemaker." We don't know the entire situation for this woman. Has she always been like this? Has it gotten worse? If it has, what was the trigger? Does she feel as if she's been displaced? That she's no longer needed? Some women whose identities are focused on being a mother feel threatened by the "other woman" when their sons are in a relationship.

However, understanding her behavior does not justify it. Instead, it allows us to make some decisions regarding how to address it. For instance, if her behavior is based upon her own self-esteem issues, we would not consider it malicious. However, it is still hurtful, and even abusive. But since it is not malicious, it is possible that the relationship can be salvaged while responding to the PA behavior. This couple should consider that she needs them maybe even more than they need her. She not only needs them for financial reasons but also for her identity as a mother. She desires to feel needed and wanted. This is evidenced by some of her statements such as "You make it totally clear you HATE having me here!" If this is the case, it may also allow this couple to reward more desired behavior while they are trying not to reward the PA behavior. For instance, if she makes a genuinely helpful comment, they could make over it a bit more: "Oh, that is a great idea! It's wonderful having someone with your years of experience to guide us!" I understand at first this may be very difficult to do without gagging due to the tension that already exists in the relationship. However, it can be a useful strategy when combined with confronting her PA behavior.

Before this couple can address their communication with their mother, they need to address their own thinking. Although the son is trying to stand up to her and set limits, he seems to be concerned about confronting and upsetting his mother. This is understandable given her tendency to escalate conflict. However, making vague statements such as "I would like you to think about maybe not making general statements. It upsets people" does not set firm limits with her. I will discuss in later posts how to do this more explicitly. However, before he can be more firm, he needs to address his thinking that may be interfering. For instance, is he concerned about escalating the conflict? If so, he needs to recognize that she will escalate it no matter what because that is the tactic she is taking. By recognizing this he can decide on the message he wants to deliver and the limits he wants to set rather than confronting her vaguely due to the concern about how she may react.

This is just one possiblity regarding how he is thinking when approaching the situation. To examine other possibilities, the couple needs to question themselves regarding the different options presented in the following posts and what might interfere with pursuing the option.

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