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Passive-Aggressive Example
Deliberate Annoyances Followed by Denial

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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 like to have an egg with a piece of toast and jelly for breakfast. This morning while cooking a couple eggs in my egg cooker I put a piece of bread in the toaster. After a while I thought my toast was taking more time than usual. I opened the toaster and found my toast almost burnt. Upon inspection, I saw the time had been turned up. She hadn't used that toaster for quite awhile. I have, so I know she must've turned it up. I didn't confront her because I have found out that's the reward she wants. When I react she gets to argue with me and first thing I know she's blaming me, turning the conversation towards me, telling me I'm getting senile or I'm crazy. Sometimes I almost believe her. It's enough to make you crazy. She's been doing this all our marriage and I just became aware of PA behavior recently. It's an every day occurance. If she gets mad at me, I start keeping an eye open for what she's going to do to get even. The things she does are not damaging, but are things I've asked her not to do. I get frustrated because I know she does it on purpose. If I confront her she says, "What did I do? I didn't do that. Your losing it!" If I say anything more, it becomes a loud argument and then she blames me for something totally different. I cannot outargue her.

Response: Fortunately, most PA behavior is not intentional but is due to either learning ineffective communication styles in childhood or to avoiding the discomfort of directly expressing anger. However, in this situation, assuming the accuracy of the interpretation based upon repeated instances of this behavior, the PA behavior is clearly intentional. In fact, it is classic revenge-seeking PA behavior with the purpose of not only expressing anger but retaliating and causing hurt. The person who engages in this behavior wants to cause the other person pain and not only not be responsible for it but to blame, escalate, and make their victim look like the "crazy" one. This allows the attacker to feel justified for raging.

Why does the person need to rage? The answer can vary from person to person. Generally, though, raging can be a release of pent-up emotions. Such a release and venting of emotions can feel good. Some people need the release due to another underlying problem such as depression. Temporarily they may get some relief from the depression when they rage. Other people may have what we refer to as "over-controlled" anger in which they allow minor annoyances to build up until they explode. However, raging about "you didn't close the cap on the toothpaste" only makes them look ridiculous so the PA behavior of creating and escalating conflict allows justification of the rage.

Unfortunately, this individual has little incentive for change. Confronting her only gives her the opportunity for escalation which gives her the desired release of being able to yell at him and tell him that he is crazy. In such a way, she can deny any responsibility and ignore her own problems. Probably the most the husband can do is to keep his sanity by recognizing the PA behavior and understanding that it is not him. By not engaging with her he can prevent the blame and escalation part of the revenge strategy. By doing so he prevents her from being able to justify her anger, attack him further, and get the release she desires.

My concern in a revenge-seeking type of situation is that if she is denied the powerful release he may need to be prepared for an escalation of tactics. With this type of person, if she is not satisfied she may escalate from minor annoyances to more damaging behavior. If this occurs, it may be necessary to allow her a little release just to keep her in check. I know this isn't the best way to handle the situation, but sometimes options are limited. Or, he may try some way to deflect the problem early on before she engages in the retaliatory PA behavior. For instance, he says "if she gets mad at me I start keeping an eye open for what she's going to do to get even." This statement indicates he knows that she is mad at him and he can predict the PA response. Maybe it is possible to deal with her anger at that point.

From a psychological viewpoint, I imagine in her mind that when he does things that annoy her she believes he is deliberately hurting her. The reason I say this is because people frequently use the defense mechanism of projection which is denying their own behavior while accusing others of the same behavior: a liar believes everyone lies, a rude person accuses everyone of being rude. So, in this case, she deliberately hurts him which is likely to mean that she believes that he intentionally hurts her.

I understand that she should be more responsible for her behavior and she should be the one to change. However, that is not the reality in this situation. She is a child acting out her anger. And as such, she needs to learn to express her anger more appropriately. Just as a parent puts words to a child's anger to teach a child how to express the anger appropriately, by putting words to his wife's anger, he might help her to be able to express herself without needing to seek revenge. Perhaps, when he knows she is angry, if he helps her put words to her anger and helps her resolve it, she wouldn't have a need for the revenge behavior: "I know you are angry with me and I sincerely don't want to cause you pain--what is it that you would like from me?" or "I didn't mean to hurt you. How can we make this better?" or "I know I can be annoying--what is it that's bothering you?" Although I know this is a long shot, by doing so, he may derail some of the PA behavior before it starts.

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