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Passive-Aggressive Example
Why Does My Husband Want a "Reward" for Hurting Me?

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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: Best article on passive/aggressive. Wish I read this 27 years ago. Didn't know what I have been dealing with. Why does my husband want a "reward" of seeing me hurt, upset, put down? Is this sick behavior learned from watching his parents? Will he ever "want" to treat me nice? Or is he incapable? I just want a husband who loves me and acts like it. I have been telling him for years his behavior is emotionally abusive, but he cant seem to stop. Why? Why is his reward to see me unhappy?

Response: Great question! The concept of "reward" (as we psychologists use it) can be very confusing. It comes from the behavior modification literature referring to the idea that people increase behavior they are rewarded for and reduce behavior when they do not receive a reward (or are punished). The easiest way to think of this idea is to consider a child who is screaming and is being disruptive in a public place. The parent desperately wants to quiet the child so the parent gives the child a piece of candy. The child has just been "rewarded" for bad behavior. What does the child learn from this? The child learns that misbehaving has benefits. But that doesn't mean the child thinks through the process: "If I scream, I will get candy." Instead, it is what we call a learned behavior which is something that is done automatically. It's sort of like stopping at a red light--once you have learned to drive, you don't think "I need to stop" when you see a red light, you just automatically stop because your brain has learned to associate a red light with pressing the brake with your foot.

In the situation with your husband it doesn't mean that he is thinking "I will get a reward if I hurt you and cause you to be unhappy" but that he is engaging in an automatic behavior that probably has been rewarded in some way throughout his life. For example, let's say a spouse was raised in an emotionally abusive home and, as a result, tries to avoid uncomfortable emotions especially those that caused feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness as a child. One way of avoiding those emotions might be to deflect the blame on to another person. By doing so he is "rewarded" by not having to feel uncomfortable. However, this process is subconscious so he is not aware of what he is doing. In fact, in this example, it has to remain subconscious because to be aware of what he is doing he would have to feel the uncomfortable emotions he is avoiding.

This is why my article discusses trying to respond to passive-aggressive (PA) people by determining what the reward might be for their behavior and then not giving them the reward. Although some PA people may be aware of what they are doing, much of the time they are not which means you can't address the behavior directly. In fact, usually they are very well protected psychologically because the whole point is to not take responsibility for their behavior because that would cause them to feel bad about themselves (which is what they are avoiding).

However, to try to determine the reward for your husband means that instead of looking at it from your point of view you need to look at what he gets from the situation. His reward probably isn't seeing you unhappy, but when be behaves a certain way and you react, what is he able to avoid? Sometimes you may not be able to know the underlying cause of his behavior which is why one of the best ways to respond to PA people is to not react. You know your reaction is a reward in some way so by not reacting he doesn't get the reward. For instance, what if you don't get upset? What if you just smile, ignore his comment, and go about your day? He doesn't get the reward.

Does that mean his behavior will change? Probably not from just ignoring him because it has been ingrained over a lifetime. However, once you stop rewarding him for bad behavior, you could start rewarding him for good behavior (borrowing another concept from behavior modification). This works really well for someone who still has that scared child inside of him because of emotionally abusive parents (which you allude to in your comment about "watching his parents").

Let's go back to that example of the child getting a piece of candy for bad behavior. Most parents know that if you stop rewarding a child for throwing tantrums and try to ignore the behavior instead, the tantrums get worse initially. But after a time, the behavior might start to decrease. So, the idea then is to reward the good behavior. When the child doesn't throw a tantrum, you praise the child for being so well-behaved.

In a similar way, you could start watching for small signs of good behavior from your husband and reward those. Instead of pointing out his emotional abusiveness, you could comment about anything he says or does that you like. "You are so kind to make sure my oil is changed." "Give me a hug--your hugs make me feel good." "I know you're trying to give me helpful advice and I appreciate it." Like I said earlier, for people who are protecting themselves from feeling bad, rewarding good behavior can be a powerful motivator for change. However, just as the PA behavior is subconscious, the change is subconscious, too. Overtime, you may see increased good behavior because it feels good to be rewarded. But instead of being rewarded for bad behavior (through your reaction to his PA comments) he is rewarded for when he treats you better.

One last thing--you may have noticed I said to watch for "small signs" of good behavior. One reason for this is when a couple is in a PA pattern for a long time, there may not be many good behaviors to reward. So, in behavior modification we have a concept known as "successive approximations to the goal." What this means is that we start by rewarding any behavior that is even remotely in the direction that we want and then shape the behavior over time. For instance, if you want to teach a bird to peck a target, you can't wait for the bird to accidentally peck a target and then reward the bird because that will probably never happen. Instead, you have to shape its behavior. To do this, you could start rewarding the bird with a piece of food whenever it is in the side of the cage where the target is. Then, once it is spending more time on that side of the cage you could start rewarding it when it is the vicinity of the target. Then, once that occurs more frequently, you could reward it when it is touching the target. In this way you have shaped the bird to the point where it will touch the target more and eventually peck the target accidentally. When that occurs, you could begin only rewarding the bird whenever it pecks the target.

I know some people object to the idea that human behavior is so mechanistic. However, in a situation where a person is acting from subconscious learned behaviors, shaping their behavior can be quite an effective method.

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