Passive-Aggressive Behavior In Relationship: Signs & Examples

May 16, 2023 |
Passive-aggressive relationship
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We’ve all been annoyed at our partners and hit them with “I don’t know where your shoes are, find them yourself”. Such mild acts of annoyance don’t usually indicate trouble and die down the minute you’re given a surprise hug from the back. But when such responses become the norm in your interactions with your partner or vice versa, it could mean you’re in a passive-aggressive relationship festered with lingering resentment.

Passive-aggressive communication, like turning your head the other way and saying, “I’m fine, stop bothering me”, when you’re clearly not, is part and parcel of a relationship. However, if your communication suffers severely because of prolonged unresolved hostility, noticing and acknowledging it before it rots your relationship from the inside is critical. 

With the help of Shazia Saleem (Masters in Psychology), who specializes in separation and divorce counseling, let’s try to understand what passive-aggressive behavior in relationships can look like so you don’t end up misconstruing building resentment for temporary annoyance. 

What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior In A Relationship?

Wondering what passive-aggressive behavior in relationships is? When you’re mildly annoyed at your partner, you purposely load the dishwasher the wrong way to irk them. When you add a little less sugar to their coffee than they’re used to, or when you tell them you don’t know where their keys are and that they should look for them themselves. 

Of course, these are things we see in literally every couple around us. Without the nuances of mildly annoyed behavior, you wouldn’t know when to stop with the joke you took too far or when you’re doing something wrong. It’s when the classic shrugging of the shoulders is followed by, “What did I even do?!” And is responded to with a deafening “Nothing, it’s fine.”

While it may look normal on paper, it can translate into a passive-aggressive relationship when you see bad communication in a relationship as a result of the lingering hostility. Take, for example, what happened with Jacob and Linda. 

Though he didn’t want to at first, Jacob became excited about watching the new musical coming to their city with Linda, who suggested it in the first place. It was two weeks away, and despite initially refusing, he found himself Googling the director and brimming with excitement. 

When the day of the musical rolled around, Linda texted Jacob from work, saying she was going to the musical with her work friends, since he “wouldn’t have liked it too much in the first place”. 

Jacob spent his evening mulling over the sudden change of plans. When Linda came back, he didn’t give her his usual kiss goodnight and rolled over to sleep, an hour before he usually does. The next morning, he pretended she didn’t exist and left for work. 

Related Reading: Understanding, Identifying And Handling Marital Conflict

The lack of interest in communication continued for a week, and every time Linda tried to talk to him, he pretended to be busy with work. Linda didn’t even realize he was upset with her and started to assume that he was cheating on her since his time at the office increased drastically and he just wouldn’t tell her what he was so busy with.

Just like that, a passive-aggressive relationship can affect the entire dynamic. Linda didn’t even know he was upset, and Jacob never cared to communicate his displeasure. As a result of the indifferent behavior, she now assumed a larger problem had arisen, which will probably cause trust issues down the line. 

Shazia explains why people may adopt passive-aggressive behavior in marriages or relationships. “People indulge in passive-aggressive behavior because of a fear of conflict and a lack of emotional awareness. Those people may not know how to handle their anger or how to express it appropriately.

“They may not want to make a big deal out of something, or they may just fear the reaction they’re going to get from their spouse. As a result, the reason for the displeasure is not addressed, which usually leads to tensions growing to the point where they might cause significant harm.” 

Essentially, the passive-aggressive definition, especially for relationships, tells us that it’s an unhealthy way of dealing with anger that contributes to a couple’s issues in the long run. First things first, let’s take a look at the signs of passive-aggressive behavior, so you can spot and address it before it turns into a chronic issue that keeps driving you and your partner further and further apart. 

passive-aggressive behavior
Passive-aggressive behavior can end up driving a wedge between couples

What Are The Signs Of Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

As you know by now, this emotion has hostility and a negative relationship as the primary motivating factors. It may even look like a person is enthusiastically complying with your request, but their execution of it will make you think otherwise. In other words, it’s when someone squirts ketchup all over your fries even if you asked for mustard because they’re upset with you.

When the person you love is being whimsically hostile toward you, you’re probably going to pick up on it. But since they’re not talking about it themselves, you might not be too sure about what’s going on. By effectively spotting the signs, you can stop a passive-aggressive relationship from getting worse. Let’s take a look at what you need to keep in mind: 

1. Purposely “forgetting” to do something 

As we said, passive-aggressive behavior in marriage or relationships may include the upset spouse agreeing to do something for the other, but when the time to do it actually rolls around, they show their disdain by “forgetting” to complete the task. 

“It’s an attempt to hurt someone and is done so knowing fully that they wish to upset their partner. It’s important to note that a person might have actually forgotten to do something. When it’s a sign of passive-aggressive communication, you’ll often see it coupled with the other signs,” says Shazia. 

2. When they do something, they do it inefficiently and incompletely 

Suppose you asked your spouse to check the availability of an important appointment and book it for you. To showcase their hostility, they may just call the place, ask about the availability, but ask you to schedule your own appointment yourself, saying, “Why should I do that for you?” 

“It reeks of a passive-aggressive relationship and poor conflict resolution skills when a partner takes up responsibility but only completes it halfway, often causing more trouble than if they had not picked up the responsibility in the first place. Again, it’s a clear attempt at making their hostility obvious,” says Shazia. 

Related Reading: Sensible Tips For Conflict Resolution In A Relationship

3. Withholding communication 

“When a partner stonewalls the other, they’re trying to vent or express their anger indirectly instead of talking about it or making their feelings clear. That quite literally is the passive-aggressive definition in the textbooks.

“This happens because of a fear of conflict, where the partner may not be willing to discuss the situation because they’re worried about the response they’ll get. At the same time, they’re not yet ready to let go of their anger, so they manifest it through stonewalling,” says Shazia. 

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4. Not being truthful

A fear of conflict leads to the person not accepting their own feelings, so they don’t admit that they’re upset with the other person. A million “What’s wrong?” may be asked, only to be met with a million, “Nothing at all, let me breathe.”

It’s passive-aggressive communication such as this that harms relationships the most. This continual lack of communication is bound to cause problems in any dynamic just because one of the two (or both) don’t know how to deal with and express their anger. 

5. You feel exhausted in the relationship 

It’s clear to see that when an aggressive personality decides to act hostile toward their partner in an indirect (read passive) manner, it will lead to issues in the relationship in the long run. Shazia points out what these issues could be.

“If a person has been dealing with a passive-aggressive relationship for a long time, s/he might start feeling exhausted in the relationship. As a result, an emotional disconnect takes place. Because such things in a relationship are interrelated, it may bleed into other aspects like respect.

“Because of the continual passive-aggressive communication, they’re never going to tell each other exactly what they feel and may start disrespecting the other. Trust issues may ensue too, and it’s all a result of the ‘revenge’ one partner set out to seek on the other,” she explains. 

Related Reading: 7 Point Ultimate Happy Marriage Checklist You MUST Follow

What Is An Example Of Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Passive-aggressive behavior, as you’ve seen by now, can ruin an otherwise healthy bond. Solely because of the incapability of one or both partners to feel their feelings and talk about them. That’s exactly why healthy and effective communication (that’s devoid of accusations) is the number one rule for conflict resolution in relationships. 

But when your spouse is just not willing to follow suit, it becomes important to spot the examples of passive-aggressive behavior as well as the signs we listed above. “An aggressive personality may use many tactics to make their passive-aggressiveness known. They may indulge in sarcastic, often rude, humor with the aim of belittling their partner. They may deliberately fail at certain tasks or purposely procrastinate on getting to them.

“Other manifestations include ignoring all communication, avoiding any form of affection, feeling an intense sensation of revenge. In most cases, you’ll see inappropriate or negative body language as well,” says Shazia. 

Understanding the nuances of passive-aggressive relationships can help you decipher why you (or your partner) deal with anger the way you do. Before the negative outcome of such hostile acts wreaks havoc on your bond, we hope you can spot the signs and nip this tendency in the bud.

If you notice passive-aggressive behavior in your relationship and think you need help with dealing with the elephant in the room, Bonobology’s panel of experienced therapists can help you understand how you can defuse the tense situation. 


1. How do you outsmart a passive-aggressive person?

Trying to “outsmart” a passive-aggressive person is only going to result in more mind-games and toxicity. Instead, focus more on diffusing the situation by putting yourself first, sticking to your demands of conflict resolution and not playing along with their games. Remain calm, since getting you angry is literally their entire agenda. 

2. Is a passive-aggressive person capable of love?

Yes, a passive-aggressive person is capable of love. Though they don’t deal with their anger healthily, it’s not something that they can’t work upon with the help of their partners. When you’re determined to handle negative emotions better, conflict resolution will go from passive-aggressiveness to featuring healthy communication.

3. Is passive-aggressive behavior a mental illness? 

According to Mayoclinic, passive-aggressive behavior isn’t considered a mental illness, though it may signify various mental health conditions. Since it essentially stems from being incapable of dealing with your anger healthily, the reasons behind it can be unique for everyone. 

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