This isn’t my first blog post to address passive aggressive behavior, including a lengthy post digging into the root of it to weed it out before it kills relationships. But it’s been a while, and I’ve recently gained some clarity about it.
I know there are different motivations for passive-aggressiveness, and sometimes we can’t see what is truly behind someone’s behavior. Some passive-aggressive behavior is what many of us would define as a textbook case. I’ll take a slightly different approach with this post in order to help people dealing with masqueraded manipulation.
If you’ve followed my story the last several years, you know how aggressively my ex walked away from our marriage and most of the connections in his life. Yet he was generally a passive person. To be clear, passivity is not the same as compassion, patience, and sacrificial, even though some people will draw the similarities between the two. A pause in action can be beneficial at times.; that pause can be wisdom, not passivity. Likewise, assertiveness can be beneficial at times. It is when it’s combined with disrespect and a fight for control that it becomes unhealthy to both the giver and receiver.
The person who “wins” is not the winner. In fact, in many cases, everyone involved loses. But as we grow beyond the situation and heal from it, we can learn lessons that set us up for healthier interactions and boundaries.
In my case, at a healthier time in my ex’s life, he realized he had been passive in some areas that weren’t good. That story is for him to share or not. But a lot of good came out of that realization. He combined respect, compassion, wisdom, and action in ways that helped people.
But the effort to replace passivity began to erode characteristics he associated with it, sometimes including compassion, patience, and sacrifice. When he decided to end our relationship, aggression reigned.
Passivity should never be replaced by hatefulness. If someone tries to take control with a fervor that gives you no voice, it feels like an explosion of passive-aggressiveness. It’s as if the pattern emerges of I will keep being passive as long as I can hold it in—I can’t hold it in much longer but am not going to say anything—now I’m going to explode it all everywhere in such a forceful way it forces you into a passive position. Take that!
As time has passed, I’ve gained perspective. And I’ve seen the seeds or shrapnel from a same dynamic among others. I recently heard someone use the phrase “aggressively passive,” and the light bulb turned on. Yes, That’s what it is sometimes. It’s a push to be passive. It’s a lack of responsibility. Here’s what it often looks and sounds:
- They apologize but not in a specific way. They want to know how you are hurt, so they only need to address those areas. They can then sweep the rest of their responsibilities and consequences under the rug.
- They carefully control the information they share and find a way to make you feel as if they withheld information for your own good. Their (claim of) thoughtfulness is repeatedly brought to the forefront.
- They lob balls in your court but don’t follow up. That way, they can share their attempts with others but blame it on you when the next step wasn’t taken.
- They rewrite conversations and situations so there is a thread of truth (sometimes) but it is taken out of context, exaggerated, or assigned a different time frame. But it always benefits them.
- As effectively as they claim to remember some of those things, they claim huge gaps in memories of others things, especially the areas in which they know they hold responsibility.
- They rarely share their distorted perspectives with mutual friends or people who are close to the truth. They often know the risks of getting caught in their own deception. For the most part, they stay in the safe zone. But if they are ever confronted with the truth, they will often explode with every defense imaginable.
- The story changes over time. For example, they might immediately withdraw and claim nothing is anyone’s business, then begin to slowly pick and choose what picture they want to paint and what history they want to rewrite. Then they will often claim they didn’t share out of concern for someone else.
It is masterful manipulation. Quite honestly, it’s easy to fall for, because the people who are best at it are often very smart. They are also very selfish in general. If you don’t want to see it in someone, you won’t, because there are enough good qualities masquerading the manipulation. And they don’t usually manipulate everything—primarily just the areas in which they want control because they can’t quite accept the brunt of their own actions. If they could, they’d likely claim it, take responsibility, heal relationship, be patient with others impacted, and grow from it.
Maybe you have no one in your life you can see this pattern in, and I hope that’s the case. But there are many people who experience it but don’t see it. The manipulation is working. Be willing to see it for what it is. It’s not insurmountable. It’s not unforgivable. But in order to move through and beyond it, truth has to be at the core of the healing process.
I hope that’s possible for you.
(And if you’re reading this with a twinge of “I see this in myself a little,” admit it to someone. Be willing to see the damage you’re doing to others. Be willing to do the hard work to get better. As you get more humble and healthier, even if you can’t salvage every relationship, you’ll help others and yourself.)