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‘I’m fine!’ Passive aggression in relationships

A sullen silence, a sarcastic message left on a post it note, a stubborn refusal to do a basic household task when asked, we can all be guilty at times of moments of passive aggressive behaviour. We can’t necessarily help it – we are all complex bundles of emotions. In our relationships with loved ones, friends and colleagues we may see it and we might laugh it off but if we don’t recognise it, if it’s allowed to continue to spread, then it becomes insipid and destructive.

When I was asked to comment recently on BBC News24 about the defended divorce appeal I read through the details of what Mrs Owens had put in her divorce petition. As leading QC James Turner reminded me before I went on air, there is no ground for divorce called “unreasonable behaviour” but instead one of the reasons for the divorce breaking down irretrievably is that the other party has behaved in such a way that the petitioner (the person filing the divorce petition) cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent. What’s the difference you may well ask? It’s a subtle difference and is all to do with point of view. The test is twofold: looking through the eyes of the petitioner and the behaviour he or she has described but also looking on as a third party observer. However what one person might consider to be unreasonable may be perfectly acceptable to another person.

Mrs Tini Owens, the wife who featured in the recent Court of Appeal case, complained that her husband would criticise her in front of their housekeeper and make her pick up bits of cardboard in the garden. They reportedly had a row in an airport shop and had a meal in silence in a local pub. He also said to have made “stinging remarks” during another meal with a friend. In all there was a list of 27 examples of her husband’s behaviour. However it wasn’t enough. She was described by the Judge who heard the defended divorce hearing that she was “more sensitive than most wives” and that some of the points she raised were “flimsy” or “exaggerated”. I cannot imagine how Mrs Owens must have felt when she heard this judgment: all her reasons for wanting to end her marriage rejected.

Now I don’t intend to explore the legal rights and wrongs of that decision, whether it is right for a Judge to have the power to determine whether a person may end their marriage  or to comment on no fault divorce. Instead I wanted to look at behaviour.

Imagine Mr and Mrs Owens sat in silence over a meal in a local pub. You may have been there before, you have probably seen another couple sat like that and you may feel sorry for them. They appear to have nothing to say to each other and you wonder what they have rowed about. Most people have been there, most people get over it and move on. We’re not expected to be perfect people full of the joys of spring all the time. Life is difficult, it throws up all sorts of stresses and complications and we can often end up taking this out on our nearest and dearest. But what happens when it keeps on happening? When we don’t recognise the consequences of the way we are behaving? Or even worse don’t even care? Relationships soon deteriorate. Maybe one partner is more keen to preserve that relationship than the other, but fundamental to any marriage has to be a desire on both sides to remain together. That surely is where the current law on divorce is missing the point? Forcing people to remain together for two years before they can divorce without laying blame makes a broken relationship a destructive relationship.

Passive aggressive behaviour is an indirect expression of hostility, through deliberate delay, stubbornness, sullen behaviour, or an intentional failure to complete a task. You may see this in housework with your spouse or homework with your child. It manifests itself in all elements of our daily life. Passive aggressive people are likely to express their feelings indirectly, rather than openly express their disagreement. It may not be visibly hostile behaviour but you will probably still be able to feel it. It can lead to poor communication, incorrect assumptions that the other person will or should know what message is being communicated, accusations and maybe the victim of that passive behaviour losing their own temper. This leads to further recrimination and also a misplaced sense of guilt. All in all a negative downward spiral.

Other examples of passive aggressive behaviour include:

  1. Somebody deliberately doing something incorrectly so they don’t get asked again.
  2. An unwillingness to make a decision, perhaps because they may not want to be blamed for the consequences of a wrong decision.
  3. A sense of being unappreciated which leads to resentment.
  4. Making backhanded compliments, giving what may at first glance appears to be praise but which is actually not genuine and indeed is really intended to insult.
  5. “Of course nothing’s wrong”. “I’m fine”. Such comments can feed a real atmosphere of resentment and miscommunication.
  6. Always having to have the last word. The person who always wants to make the last point, feeling that if they have they must have won. A classic playground rule.

As I say these will be traits that are familiar to us all and most of us will experience them and deal with them through patience, self-reflection and forgiveness. However for some of us, like Mrs Owens perhaps, it may simply become too much – when the silences are too frequent, the behaviour too overt and the recriminations too direct. Whether her claims were exaggerated or not is really only for her and Mr Owens to know or for the court to determine, but it is a tale that many others will recognise.

So how can you deal with it? Here’s a few tips:-

  1. Learn to recognise it. When you can recognise it you stop doubting yourself and wondering what is going on.
  2. Remember that we are all human and sometimes we need time to digest something and to reflect on what is happening so be patient. In taking time to observe and to reflect you are less likely to jump to wrong conclusions. The age-old tip of “take a breath and count to ten” is invaluable.
  3. Try to keep your distance if you can if your partner is being difficult. Passive aggressive behaviour needs an audience otherwise like a fire without oxygen it will burn out.
  4. Discuss what is happening with your spouse or partner. Choose your moment and try to find out what the underlying problems are.
  5. Look after yourself and remain positive. This behaviour may have nothing to do with you.

We find that this type of behaviour is often displayed when a marriage has broken down and our clients are seeking a divorce or separation. Clients will find that they are experiencing difficulties in communicating with the other party. They are unable to reach agreement over the smallest of things, let alone the significant issues such as arrangements for their children or how they will achieve a financial settlement. In those situations solicitors, collaborative lawyers, counsellors and mediators can help with communication. Enabling communication through third parties or with third parties present can provide a filter for the stronger emotions and hopefully generate a safe place to sort things out. These professionals don’t only know the law. Good family lawyers and mediators also understand the emotions that their clients are going through and have experience of the difficulties you are facing. Rarely have we come across something which is completely new. Patterns of behaviour are common.

I often consider that the main obstacle to an agreement being reached is the parties themselves and their feelings towards each other. Time is the best healer but a good level of self-awareness and an understanding of why somebody may be behaving in a certain way can really help you strengthen your relationship and deal with those difficult moments.

Julian is Stowe Family Law’s Senior Partner and is based in our Leeds office. Julian has extensive experience in all aspects of family law particularly in complex financial disputes. He has been with the firm for over 20 years and has a reputation for his strategic thinking and ability to cut through to the key issues and solve the most intractable of cases.

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  1. D says:

    On examples of passive aggressive behaviour, number 2 is genuinely interesting..

    2. An unwillingness to make a decision, perhaps because they may not want to be blamed for the consequences of a wrong decision.

    If they were using unwillingness to make a decision to make some kind of point, then definitely… the example is interesting, perhaps reliant on behaviour the individual has received in the past and a point for discussion?

    Passive aggressive behaviour generally is an interesting one, as said, it occurs in everyday life, is misunderstood and must be horrific in relationship breakdown.

  2. spinner says:

    I have no issue with people wanting to end a marriage for any reason they like and I think the days of marriage being considered a lifelong for better or worse solemn promise or commitment to each other are long gone. What needs to catch up with that is the financial obligations largely place on men that can and do seem to still mean a life time commitment. These things cannot both be true or reasonable at the same time.

  3. Elena says:

    Nobody can deny not being passive-aggressive at some point in his/her life. But there is a type of “passive-aggressive” behaviour which is simply another face of manipulation or very silent/covert abuse.

    The other person specialises in activating a sense of guilt in you and if you decide to start defending yourself, you will be also guilty in the eyes of the outside world (like Mrs Owens) since the person will make sure that you are the “crazy” one. You’ll be then considered as the perpetrator.
    And it is not uncommon for the passive-aggressive with the help of other people or “enablers” to abuse you themselves. Too busy to defend the poor passive-aggressive person and protect him/her from your nastiness, these enablers will fail to see the triumphant smile on the face of the perpetrator.

    My best way to deal with these people is not to engage or take the bait. However, you might have to respond if you have children together or it is your boss, then respond without any emotion (not easy but can be done) or Grey Rock Method. Above all, you cannot control the other person’s behaviour but you can control yours. All the best.

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