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Passive-Aggressive Example
Trap of Demanding Private Thoughts

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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: I'm working on my issues with jealousy. I try not to share my jealous thoughts and feelings with my girlfriend, but what do I say when she asks "What's wrong?" If I answer "I'm trying to work through some things" she demands to know what it is about and then we end up in an argument about the jealousy. What should I do?

Response: This is a good example of the need for privacy in a relationship. Some people have the romantic notion that all thoughts should be shared by a couple. And if thoughts are not shared, that person feels rejected: "If you can't share with me, that means you can't trust me!"

However, some thoughts shouldn't be shared. As human beings we have all sorts of thoughts. Part of living together in harmonious relationships is to sort through our thoughts and share what is appropriate. This is true of creating a harmonious society as well (although you wouldn't know it by what is broadcast by media today).

In this situation, he understands that he has a problem--a problem that has caused discord in his relationship when he shared it. He recognizes it is his problem to be solved and can't be solved as a couple. However, jealous feelings don't stop just because he recognizes they are inaccurate or says "Stop!" As readers of this website know, changing emotions requires repeated attention over a period of time to the thoughts that create the emotions. He is trying to do this. However, he still feels the emotion and may be quiet or withdrawn when trying to work through it.

His girlfriend knows he has a problem. She knows he is trying to work on it. When she demands that he tell her what is wrong after he has said he is working through his thoughts, she is setting him up to fail. Hopefully, this is unintentional and due to her need for reassurance and security. In which case, education can be helpful. Explaining to her how cognitive therapy works and that he is supposed to work through irrational thoughts privately because they have nothing to do with her may be enough to help her stop demanding.

If she continues to demand, then this could be a passive-aggressive (PA) trap. As I've written before, PA behavior is often for the purpose of escalating the situation in such a way as to place the blame on the other person. When this occurs it may be necessary to confront that behavior. However, with PA behavior, it is best not to confront too directly. For instance, don't say, "You are trying to start an argument." If you do, it provides the PA person with the perfect opportunity to turn the blame back on you.

Instead, perhaps ask why the person feels a need to know, "You know I'm working through some things that have nothing to do with you. And you know that if I share them it will cause an argument. Is there a reason you feel I need to share?" A rational person would likely back down at this point. However, if the girlfriend has her own unresolved issues, she could still persist, "Well, I want to know what you are thinking because it lets me know whether you still have a problem." The trap in this response is that it is like telling an alcoholic, "If you ever think about drinking, you can't be trusted." The fact that a person is addressing a problem is the important issue. Also, given that no one is perfect, the fact that a person recognizes a problem and thinks about it and tries to change the behavior associated with it, is the best sign of movement towards health.

If the girlfriend persists no matter what and escalates the argument, it is possibly an attempt to break up without having to be responsible for ending the relationship. Again, this can be confronted directly but by placing the responsibility on her: "I've told you the problem. I'm addressing it. But you continue to undermine my efforts by insisting that I share my thoughts. If you continue, I can only believe that you are wanting to escalate the conflict. If so, then you also have a problem to address or it means you want to leave. Let's discuss this directly rather than focusing on me expressing thoughts and feelings that I know are irrational."

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