Communication is an essential component of family cohesion and sharing. However, it is not always easy, and poor communication is frequently the result of personality styles that either clash with your own or are simply difficult. While it is possible to be compassionate and understanding, it is critical not to be bulldozed by the sly manipulations of the passive-aggressive relative. The passive-aggressive personality type reveals a person who is unwilling to confront resentment, anger, and other negative emotions directly. Instead, in order to “interact,” the passive-aggressive relative will complain, argue, and act unappreciated. Of course, this is not a healthy way to interact, and you’ll need to develop some solid coping mechanisms to avoid being sucked into the passive-aggressive vortex.
Part 1 Identifying Passive Aggressive Behavior
1. Keep an eye on your relatives. Try to identify the passive-aggressive behaviours they’re exhibiting. Take into account occasional lapses––we all behave passive-aggressively from time to time due to stress, exhaustion, fear, or a lack of assertiveness. When it is a person’s primary mode of communication, the behaviour becomes problematic. Among the warning signs to look for are:
What exactly is this relative saying? Complaining is a common symptom of passive-aggressive behaviour. Complaints about being unappreciated and about their own misfortunes, for example, are common.
What exactly is this relative up to? On the one hand, the relative appears to agree with you, but then you discover he or she went and did the exact opposite!
How does the relative react to new information or the decisions you (or your siblings, cousins, and so on) have made in your life? Passive aggressive behaviour can be identified by feigning disinterest or outright ignoring the news, or by criticising or scorning your accomplishments with layers of “wit”, sarcasm, or joke cracking. The passive aggressive person is suspicious of other people’s success and will go to great lengths to minimise it or suggest that it was the result of luck or cheating, rather than accepting that someone may have worked hard for it. It will all be done subtly, so don’t expect outright scorn.
Is your relative critical or withholds positive reinforcement? The inability to give praise or acknowledge a job well done is a sign of resentment, which is a major motivator for passive aggressive behaviour.
Have you ever noticed a relative making snide remarks but then acting as if he or she never said them? Or even accusing you of misinterpretation of what has been said?
Is your relative arguing with you about almost everything you say or suggest? A lot of “back chat” in which people insist that their situation is worse, that they know better, or that they shine brighter can create a very negative pattern. Saying things like, “No, no, no, that’s not the case,” or “Well, in my experience, that never happens,” or “In my day, we didn’t even have that kind of chance and had to work hard for our supper,” and so on.
Is your relative constantly complaining about how fortunate other people are and how unlucky he or she is? Does this person say the dreaded words “if only…” before going on to explain everything he or she could have done in life if all the stars had aligned properly? Listening to this type of talk, one gets the impression that the speaker is unable to accept that he or she bears no responsibility for making positive changes in one’s life.
2. Finally, what is the relative doing that makes you believe he or she is engaging in passive aggressive behaviour toward you? Most of the time, it is very subtle, but the more a passive aggressive person responds in this manner, the more “natural” it feels to him or her and the more blatant it can become over time. Determine what it is about their behaviour that bothers you. Is it that they don’t agree with you, or is it the manner in which they express their disagreement, i.e. gritting their teeth silently, then saying “it’s fine, dear” when you ask what’s wrong?
3. Examine the motivations behind your relative’s actions. You may or may not know “the grand narrative” behind why your relative is acting passive aggressively, but you will likely get enough snippets of what has irritated your relative through what he or she says. This should allow you to start putting together a bigger picture of what’s wrong with the person. Determine what bothers you about this person’s outlook on life and attitude toward others in the family, particularly those who have accomplished things that this person is resentful of.
Why is the individual behaving in this manner? Is it possible that Aunt Flo aspired to be a prima ballerina in her youth but was too poor and married too young to realise her dream, only to see a grandchild excel at ballet? Perhaps Uncle Georgy aspired to be an astronaut but found the required subjects too difficult to study, only to discover years later that a nephew has been accepted to NASA. These are not excuses; rather, they are ways of comprehending the narrative upon which the relative has built their current reality.
Do you believe there is a reasonable reason why your relative might not approve of something important to you? In some cases, a passive aggressive person is self-protecting from a negative experience, but then projects that negative experience onto loved ones in the hope of shielding them from a similar negative experience. It can be helpful to recognise that a harsh, scolding, or nasty remark about your choices being wrong may be coming from a place of concern for you, however misplaced based on their own personal bad experience.
In some cases, the passive aggressive relative is attempting to exert control over you, the situation, the family, and so on. This person may believe that his or her place in the family is under threat, and that being passive aggressive is a covert attempt to reestablish the relative’s power over others. There may even be a sense of accomplishment in knowing that their words or actions have caused another person distress or second thoughts.
Jealousy is another possible motivation for passive aggressive behaviour. As Aunt Flo and Uncle Georgy demonstrated above, seeing someone else succeed in ways that the relative believes he or she has failed can be devastating, even self-confirming of long-term failure to pursue dreams. Resentment, bitterness, and spite are likely to fuel the motivation behind the passive aggressive behaviour in this case.
4. Be aware that one of the main motivations for passive aggressive behaviour is to attack you, bring you down, mock you, or show you up without retaliation. This is why sarcasm, jokes, all-knowing statements, and false wisdom are frequently used to suggest that “no harm was intended,” even when harm was the full intent.
Part 2: Coping Strategies for Passive Aggressive Behavior
1. Don’t allow yourself to become a part of the game. The most important aspect of dealing with a passive aggressive relative (and family ties do make the emotional heartstrings tug even harder) is learning not to be annoyed. Before you come into contact with the specific relative again, practise good thinking patterns in your head––a little mental role-playing can help you avoid panicking and succumbing to the subtle pressures.
Tell yourself, for example: “Granny is acting passive aggressively once more. I adore her, but I’m not going to let her mess with my head like this any longer. She is resentful of X, but that will not stop me from accomplishing my goals “.. Alternatively, “By saying those things, Jon is being unjust and attempting to sabotage me. I know he’s acting passive aggressively, and if I get upset, he’ll get his way. Worrying or becoming irritated about him will not change anything. Instead, I’ll either ignore the comments or defend myself.”
Above all, maintain your cool. It is natural to feel agitated or upset, but this increases the likelihood that your response will be emotionally driven rather than rationally considered. Being calm will make the passive aggressive person nervous.
2. Openly and politely confront the relative. Respond once you’ve determined that passive aggressive behaviour is your relative’s way of communicating (or not communicating) with you and that it bothers you. Wait until your relative engages in passive-aggressive behaviour or says something passive-aggressive. Then, in a calm and friendly tone, inquire, “Why do you say or do that?” If your relative claims that he or she did nothing wrong, say so “You just said or did (repeat what they just said or did). Do you disagree with my idea (or is my storey bothering you)?”
3. Share your own emotions. Stay calm if your relative denies being bothered by anything. “Well, when you said or did… this made me feel rejected or silly, and it hurts my feelings,” say. This is a non-aggressive way to show your relative that his or her passive aggressive behaviour is important to you. Your relative will then be forced to justify his or her actions.
Often, this is enough to elicit an open explanation or apology, even if it is delivered harshly (e.g., “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad, I’m just worried about your finances or your future/etc.”, or “You know I love you, I don’t have to say that all the time!”).
“I’m really glad you told me that,” or something along those lines, is a good follow-up. This is a stressful situation for him or her, so appreciate the small steps he or she is taking.
4. Don’t let your relative dismiss you. If your relative retorts that you are simply too sensitive, stand firm––this type of retort is a put-down, not a fact. Tell your relative that you genuinely value his or her opinion, even if it differs from yours, and that you want your relative to feel comfortable sharing thoughts with you. This will most likely surprise your relative. Many passive-aggressive people behave in this manner because they lack the confidence to express themselves and face potential conflict. If you tell your relative that his or her opinion is valuable, he or she may abandon the defensive posture and begin to interact with you on eye level.
Stick to facts at all times. Keep a record in a small notebook, along with dates and context, if necessary.
Don’t be a broken record. If the relative tries to twist the facts, deny what was said or done, or blame someone else, simply repeat what you know to be true and what behaviour you prefer.
Learn to be more assertive if necessary. Help is available in articles such as How to Be Assertive and How to Transition from Passive to Assertive.
5. Stop relying on this relative for anything. If you find yourself in a situation where this relative has made any kind of promise to you, treat them as empty words. Don’t sit around waiting for a miracle; instead, get on with your plans and find more dependable people to assist you as needed.
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