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Passive-Aggressive Example
Husband and Wife Mutual Sulking

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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 have been searching for the causes of frustration I have been going through with my husband for a while now, and I actually thought I was the passive aggressive one in the marriage because of all the sulking and mutual silent treatments. However it turns out I am only reflecting what is being imposed on me. For example, he does not do things I ask him to do. I am not fond of asking for people to do stuff for me. When I do, it usually is truly necessary that they do it. If I tell him to pick up the table after a meal I cooked and put on the table, he says "I would only do it if you don't tell me to do it." Next time I would not tell him what to do, expecting him to remember, and he just lets the table with dirty dishes sit there for hours and hours. He definitely knows I am expecting him to remove them so he resists me even when I don't say anything. When I become angry and try to tell him jokingly he starts the sulking/anger/resistance telling me I am once again trying to control him. So next time I just silently remove the dishes from the table and I sulk instead. When I sulk it causes him to sulk and we go days resenting each other. I don't understand it: if I don't ask him when I want him to do something, how will he ever know I want them done?

Response: Several problems are occurring in this scenario because both people are being passive-aggressive (PA). He clearly is putting her in a PA trap and she is falling into it and responding in a PA way herself. However, he is a master at it and will win every time so she needs to stop playing the game.

The biggest problem for their marriage is the sulking and silent treatment for days which can seriously poison a marriage. This is something the wife can do something about since she is a participant. She can't change his behavior directly but by her being more assertive and direct his behavior might change in response.

Therefore, she needs to stop her PA responses because all this does is escalate into a battle of who can out-PA the other. Let's start with "I become angry and try to tell him jokingly" because that is a clear PA behavior because it is an indirect expression of anger which is not lost on him. He knows at that point he has won the battle and his reward is to sulk while placing the blame on her. Instead of joking she needs to be direct. In fact, why become angry? Think of it like dealing with a child. With a child you don't become angry, you tell them what is acceptable and what are the consequences.

In this case, being direct would be saying something like, "I feel hurt when I ask for assistance and you ignore my request." Will he still get angry and sulk? Probably. But at least she is not participating in the PA contest.

However, let's imagine that instead of sulking right away, he responds, "You are trying to control me again."

She could say (with sincerity--not an angry tone), "I am asking for help--is there a better way for me to do that?"

He might say, "I will only do it if you don't tell me to do it."

At that point she could respond with (again, with sincerity), "I don't know how to make a request without asking you. Maybe it is the way I am asking? Is there another way to let you know when I need help?" This places the responsibility back on him instead of her remaining in his trap of "don't tell me, but if you don't ask me I won't do it."

If he continues to say in one form or another, "Don't ask" then she may have to engage in consequences. For instance, once when my family wasn't helping with the dishes without a lot of friction, I went on strike. I didn't say a word about it. I just stopped doing the dishes. I didn't do it angrily and didn't change my behavior in any other way--I simply told myself I wasn't going to do it. It took about two weeks and every dish in the house was dirty and piled up on the counters but one day I came home and the kitchen was clean. To this day I don't know who did them because I never commented on it. But I never had a problem after that.

Second, she needs to stop the sulking. This becomes easier if she assertively states how she feels. For instance, instead of "silently" removing the dishes she could do the dishes but make an assertive statement such as "I feel it is unfair when I do the cooking and you won't help me with clean up." Remember, assertive is direct, polite, to the point, and without an angry tone. Make the statement and then drop it. Don't continue to dwell on the situation. If he sulks, she should ignore the sulking and act normal. In this way, he can't win by getting her to escalate into a sulking match and then blaming her. If she doesn't participate, he's having to play by himself. Which isn't as much fun.

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