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Passive-Aggressive Example
Mother-in-law and Communication Problems

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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 soon to be mother-in-law texted me about the camping menu for the next weekend hunt. I knew she had left out the other son's girlfriend (“Sue”) before so I suggested she text Sue and see what she was thinking of making. My mother-in-law did not know I had already talked to Sue who said she wanted cereal and soup, easy and cheap. I never got a call back so I thought that was what we were going to do. We were the last ones to the camp. They had made two dutch ovens with casseroles in them! We had stopped at the last gas station for something before we headed out of town and got something cheap. So when she had changed Sue's meal plans to big dinners and french toast in the morning my boyfriend saw how hurt I was and told his mom we need better communication about food planning. She wouldn't even look at us and said "we knew we had plenty for everyone.” Then she said Dad can't even eat soup. Then why wouldn't she have told me that earlier in the week? I started crying and went to the truck. What am I dealing with? She never says what she really means. We just got home from camp and I sent her a text saying " I know you didn't mean to hurt my feelings by not calling me back about the meal planning, but if you can please text me what I need to bring next week so I'm prepared and not left out of the loop, I'm going to the store soon.” She sent back what to bring but not a word to answer me about hurting my feelings. I am VERY direct and have a leadership type personality with a bit of a people-pleaser in me so I don't know what to do when she says "well we knew we had enough for everyone." What do I do? I need to handle this before I marry her son.

Response: Given just the information provided here it is not clear whether the mother-in-law is passive-aggressive (PA) or is a poor communicator. Generally, it is best to make the most benign interpretation of someone's behavior until proven otherwise. However, this daughter-in-law may have more information other than this one instance to make her judgments.

If this is truly PA behavior, one thing to keep in mind is that PA people can only affect you to the degree that you give them control over you. The more important an outcome is to you, the more opportunity the PA person has to hurt you. So, the question here is: why were the daughter-in-law's feelings hurt? The writer says that she is a people-pleaser so my assumption is that she was unable to engage in her people-pleasing behavior (being a good daughter-in-law and contributing to the family event) as a result of the mother-in-law's PA behavior or poor communication.

However, that is the writer's issue, not the mother-in-law's. What I mean by this is that if she was not trying to please anyone, instead of getting her feelings hurt she could have responded with “Oh, that was so nice of you to take care of the meals. Please let me know next time what the plan is so I can contribute, too.” Notice the wording with this. It really doesn't matter whether the mother-in-law is PA or just a poor communicator. This response confronts the behavior in a gentle way but places the responsibility on the mother-in-law for future situations. This is especially important for a people-pleaser who most likely tends to take too much responsibility.

Confronting gently is important for two reasons. One, if the mother-in-law's behavior is poor communication, it won't confuse and escalate the situation. Two, if the mother-in-law is PA, it won't reinforce the PA behavior by rewarding it. People who are PA want to attack without having to be responsible for their behavior. If the daughter-in-law directly confronts the behavior, the PA person is likely to respond “You are just too sensitive” or “You are making a big deal out of nothing.”

Another problem with this incident is the daughter-in-law's texting her mother-in-law about her hurt feelings rather than discussing the problem face-to-face. This is an issue that is becoming all too common with the advent of new technology such as texting. In my opinion, although people are communicating more, the quality of communication has become much worse.

Non-verbals are an important part of communication especially when discussing emotions. Under the best of circumstances it is easy to misunderstand emotions, and texting is not the best of circumstances. I don't believe that it is ever a good idea to communicate emotions through texting. Frequently, my clients have read me texts that they claimed were critical or demanding or hurtful, yet when I read the texts back with a different tone they agreed that maybe the text had a different meaning. No matter how many emoticons are used with texting, tone of voice and other non-verbals can never be accurately communicated by text.

The daughter-in-law had an expectation that the mother-in-law would respond to her “texted” feelings of being hurt but she did not ask the mother-in-law to address the issue. In fact, the mother-in-law addressed exactly what she asked “please text me what I need to bring.” But the daughter-in-law is upset because the mother-in-law did not read her mind and know that she wanted a response to her hurt feelings. Unless there was more communication regarding this that we are unaware of, how was the mother-in-law to know?

Another mistake made by the daughter-in-law was the assumption that what she had discussed with Sue was the final decision. Again, there was a breakdown in communication. It was as much her responsibility as her mother-in-law's to determine what was the final outcome. If my assumption that as a people-pleaser she tends to take too much responsibility is accurate, it is also possible that she has an expectation that others will take the same amount of responsibility as her. Such an expectation can easily lead to assumptions and misunderstandings.

Finally, if the mother-in-law is truly PA, then it is best for feelings to be stated at the time that the feelings were hurt, “I feel left out because you didn't tell me the meal plans were changed. I am embarrassed that we didn't contribute.” Notice that the reasons for the emotions are very specific which is critical to clear communication. By expressing hurt feelings clearly and directly it is likely to decrease future PA behavior because the PA person knows that she will be confronted and have to be responsible for her actions.

I know in this situation I'm pointing out the problems in the daughter-in-law's communication and assumptions. However, this is a critical point regarding dealing with PA behavior. It is first important to make sure that you are understanding the behavior accurately and that your communication is assertive. Once you are certain of that, the PA behavior of others becomes more clear. This situation, as described, is not clear, which indicates the daughter-in-law needs to address her responses prior to making assumptions about the mother-in-law.

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