Examples of passive-aggressive behavior include lateness, avoidance, and silence. Passive-aggressive behavior can damage relationships and make communication difficult. It is a concealed form of aggression, which can make it difficult to confront.
Passive aggression is a type of indirect aggression. It allows a person to express anger and related emotions without directly communicating these feelings. People expressing passive aggression often retain the ability to deny that they intended their behavior aggressively.
Passive aggression is a common coping mechanism that many people use from time to time, especially when they want to avoid direct conflict. However, high levels of passive aggression also correlate with certain mental health diagnoses, including borderline personality disorder, self-harm, anorexia nervosa, and adjustment disorder.
People who engage in passive aggression may feel just as aggressive or hostile as those who adopt more overt forms of aggression.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) no longer lists passive-aggressive personality disorder as a distinct and separate diagnosis. However, many researchers and clinicians still use the term.
Keep reading for examples of passive aggression, the risks and dangers of this behavior, and how to deal with it.
Passive aggression is a type of concealed aggression. It attempts to communicate anger and other forms of distress but without openly acknowledging these emotions.
Passive aggression is often vindictive. A person may adopt this communication style in revenge for a perceived slight.
People who need help with their passive-aggressive behavior may find support in psychotherapy.
Some examples of passive-aggressive behavior include:
Most people are late from time to time, and lateness is often not a sign of passive aggression. In fact, this is what makes it an effective form of passive-aggression since the late person has plausible deniability that they really were stuck in traffic or lost track of time, for example.
Frequent lateness can be a way of showing disrespect. It may also be a way to avoid uncomfortable situations or make a person feel less important. In this regard, it can be a tool of passive aggression.
People use many different avoidance strategies to display their aggression without being overt about it. Some examples include:
- avoiding returning a loved one’s call
- avoiding certain topics of discussion, especially if they know the other person wants to discuss those topics
- ignoring someone as a form of aggression, such as by not approaching them at a party
3. Weaponized kindness
Sometimes people use ostensibly kind or helpful acts to display their emotions. For example, a person who is angry that a family member forgot their birthday might then, in turn, “go the extra mile” to celebrate that person’s birthday, then make comments about how they could never ignore such an important event.
Sarcasm is when a person says something they do not mean. This can be passive-aggressive when a person wields sarcasm as a tool for punishing others. For example, they might sarcastically mock a loved one’s emotions or personality traits.
The silent treatment allows a person to punish someone else without actively doing anything. They might completely ignore calls or emails, refuse to talk only about certain subjects, or selectively withdraw from time to time.
6. Subtle digs
Subtle digs or negative comments are a common form of passive aggression. For example, a person might comment on a topic they know makes another person uncomfortable, such as their dating life or weight.
They might also use their knowledge about a person’s history to subtly hurt them. For example, a parent whose child struggled to sleep in their own room during childhood, in adulthood, might make negative comments around their child relating to other children who cannot sleep independently. In this manner, they keep ‘digging’ at their child even years after the described events, never letting them forget and subtly putting them down.
7. Weaponized incompetence
Weaponized incompetence is when a person pretends to be incompetent as a way of either avoiding an unpleasant task or punishing another person. For example, a spouse might pretend not to know how to clean the bathroom or do an objectively inferior job styling a child’s hair so that they do not have to keep doing it.
Passive aggression is still aggression. A 2018 study of nurses found that people who adopt this style of aggression may feel as much aggression as those engaged in other forms of aggression. Researchers also found similar effects to other forms of aggression, such as emotional stress.
Some of the risks of passive aggression include:
- Suspicion and distrust: The nurses in the 2018 study found that trust broke down with passive aggression. This could be partially because passive aggression is difficult to address directly, potentially eroding a sense of team cohesion.
- Stress: Exposure to passive aggression can be as stressful as exposure to more typical aggression. Additionally, a person may experience stress from struggling to either recognize or appropriately respond to the aggression.
- Relationship problems: Passive aggression conceals a person’s aggressive intent, which can make it more difficult for the people they care about to recognize and respond to their emotions. Additionally, the desire to convey aggression without communication or accountability may steadily damage relationships.
- Poor communication: Passive aggression, by definition, is an attempt to avoid directly communicating one’s emotions. This can negatively affect relationship communication, especially when a person denies their aggressive intent.
- More aggression: A person may respond to passive aggression with more passive aggression or escalate to overt aggression.
- Poor mental health: Passive aggression may be both a symptom of and a contributor to poor mental health. People exposed to passive aggression may experience high levels of stress. Passive aggression also correlates with mental health conditions such as anorexia nervosa, borderline personality, and adjustment disorder.
Recognizing passive aggression can sometimes be challenging. A hallmark of this behavior is that a person feels aggressive or upset but attempts to conceal those emotions.
Some factors to be aware of include:
- A person may have a reason to feel upset or angry but does not overtly express it.
- The interaction may leave a person feeling uneasy.
- Communication deteriorates, but it is difficult to pinpoint the precise problem.
- A person’s behavior appears aggressive, but they either deny aggressive intent or only engage in aggressive behaviors that they could deny as aggressive.
- A person engaged in passive aggression may express their emotions with behaviors rather than words. For example, they may be chronically late or ignore telephone calls.
One of the challenges of passive-aggressive behavior is that it is a deliberate attempt to conceal a person’s aggressive feelings. People who behave passive-aggressively do not want others to notice or respond to their aggression, but they still want to communicate their emotions.
There is no single method that works for all types of passive-aggressive behavior. Some options to consider include:
- Responding to the emotions: Rather than discussing aggression, it may help to respond to a person’s emotions since passive aggression is an attempt to communicate them. “I know you are upset that I forgot your birthday, and I want to fix it. Can we work on a solution together?”
- Avoiding counter-aggression: Some people respond to passive-aggression with more passive-aggression. This only undermines communication and can initiate a vicious cycle of escalating aggression.
- Countering with open communication: Addressing passive-aggressive behavior for what it is can sometimes be helpful. Try naming the specific behavior, then asking the person to do something different. “When you stop speaking to me when you are angry, it means I cannot resolve the conflict with you. Can we try talking through this instead?”
- Setting relationship boundaries: When a person refuses to acknowledge their aggression, it can be helpful to draw boundaries about what sort of behavior a person will tolerate. For example, a person might say they will not wait longer than 10 minutes when a loved one is late or continue calling when a person gives them the silent treatment.
- Calling a person’s bluff: This can be effective when a person pretends to be unable to do something they actually can. A spouse might ask their partner to sign up for cleaning lessons or watch YouTube videos on styling children’s hair.
Passive-aggressive behavior can be challenging to deal with. This is because it is less overt, unlike overt forms of aggression. Furthermore, even when a person knows someone is behaving passive-aggressively, finding a way to directly address the behavior without triggering a denial can be difficult.
Examples of passive-aggressive behavior include the use of silence, avoidance, sarcasm, and weaponized kindness.
Understanding why people behave passive-aggressively may help with defusing the behavior.
If an individual has a pattern of behaving passive-aggressively in most interactions, it may point to a serious problem with the relationship. It can also be a sign of mental health issues.
People who behave passive-aggressively may find support in psychotherapy.