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Passive-Aggressive Example
Confronting Step-son About Not Visiting

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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 believe that my 41-year old step-son is being passive aggressive in refusing to visit us, alone or with his wife and two children. He knows that his mother had an affair (to whom she is now married) then divorced his father. I met his father a few years later, eventually moved in with him and his then 25-year old son, and we married two years later. His son deeply resented this as he thought he and his girl-friend would live with his father until he eventually inherited the property. He had resented other females with whom his father had had relationships after his divorce so it's not that he just didn't like me, he just didn't want his father to re-marry.

My step-son doesn't openly refuse to visit us but gives inane excuses why he can't (such as my car is broken, I'm too busy, etc.) that insult our intelligence. My husband won't challenge him as he's his only child because my husband's daughter died tragically, aged 11, many years ago. He has visited us three times in the last 4 years, the first time coming to our new house out of curiosity but he refused to come to the house on the two subsequent visits and insisted we meet for lunch at a local restaurant at our expense. My step-son and his family did come to my husband's 70th birthday party 6 months ago but only, I feel, as he knew the rest of the family would be here and he didn't want to look bad in front of them by not attending.

My step-son doesn't invite me or his father to visit them. If my husband asks when he can visit, his son tells him he's welcome any time and won't set a date but he lives 90 miles away so we can hardly call to see them. This behaviour has become worse over the last 10 years but when asked what is the problem my step-son expresses surprise and says there's nothing wrong with them, the problem must lie with us. He and his wife often see her family and his mother and her new husband.

If he were my son I would challenge him openly and ask for an explanation but my husband is reluctant to do this for fear of making the situation worse. I can no longer take the inane excuses for not visiting so it's inevitable that I will challenge my step-son on this soon. My husband loves children but, sadly, doesn't see his grand-children very often. I'm not allowed to consider them to be my grand-children, this is made very clear by my step-son and his wife referring to me by my first name when they mention me to the children in my presence. It's designed to be hurtful and it is hurtful but nothing we do changes the situation leading me to think that it is passive-aggressive behaviour on my step-son's part.

Response: The first issue here is whether the step-son's behavior is passive-aggressive (PA) or not. The second issue is what the step-mother can do about it.

To answer the first question, let's look at the definition of PA behavior: the passive expression of anger (aggression) designed to not take responsibility for the anger by making it appear to be the recipient's problem. Examining this situation in light of this definition makes it clear that the step-son is engaging in PA behavior especially when he denies there is a problem (when clearly he and is family are not visiting) and shifts the blame to them.

However, knowing this and accusing him is not going to do any good and is likely to make things worse as the father fears. The step-mother wants to confront in an effort to protect her husband but she is likely to create additional problems. Any confrontation should come from the father and he is unwilling to do that (and a direct confrontation is not a good idea anyway when dealing with a PA person).

So, what can she do? First, this is her husband's problem, not hers. By accepting it as his problem she can resist the urge to try to correct it by confronting her step-son. No matter how much we care about someone, we can't effectively fix their problems without their consent. To try to do so is interfering and can create a host of other problems including, in this case, conflict or negative emotions between her and her husband. By accepting that it is her husband's problem she can also refrain from complaining to her husband about the step-son. Why allow this to be a negative interaction between the two of them? That allows the step-son to win because he is creating a problem for them without having to be responsible. Instead, she can console her husband when he is hurting and be a support for him: "I know it's difficult not being able to see your son and grandchildren."

Once she is able to let go of the problem, perhaps other solutions will appear. For instance, one possibility that I see is taking the step-son up on his offer to see them anytime. Even though it may be difficult, it is not impossible. The parents could start contacting the son on a regular basis (every couple weeks) and say "We're planning on stopping by this weekend. When is a good time for you?" Sure, they may be told "We're busy this weekend" but if they persist even after repeated rejections, then it becomes more clear where the problem lies. If that occurs, the father could ask "We've been trying to make arrangements to see you for the last several months. Is there a problem?" At that point it is more difficult for the son to shift the blame to them as they have been making an effort. It's also possible that maybe that won't even be necessary because the son might agree to the visits.

One last thing. The step-mother says she's not allowed to be a grandmother to these children. However, a grandmother is not a name--it is a relationship. For instance, my step-granddaughter was told by her grandmother that I was not her "real" grandmother. When she told me this, I asked "Do you think I love you?" She answered, "Yes." I hugged her and said, "Well, that's real enough, don't you think?" and she agreed. What I mean is that our relationship with step-children and grandchildren is established by us--not by how someone else defines it. Instead of worrying about what the grandchildren call her she can just BE a good grandmother. When she has the opportunity to visit, give the grandchildren plenty of positive attention. Then, it doesn't matter what they call her because it's all about love anyway.

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