Q: My girlfriend, who’d been traveling, lost track of what day it was and was surprised when I showed up on the usual night I come cook her dinner. She was happy to see me but said she needed to finish this one “urgent work email.” How nice. Dinner would get cold while she took forever. Instead of getting started in the kitchen, I sat down angrily on the couch. “What’s wrong?” she asked. I said, “I’ll just sit here till you’re ready!” She got angry, saying that I should have just asked her how long she’d be or told her I felt bad. She then went on about how I have a “toxic” habit of this sort of “passive-aggressive” behavior, and I need to stop “acting out” before it ruins our relationship. I love her and don’t want to lose her. Help!—Doghouse
A: There will sometimes be reasons you are unable to communicate using the spoken word: Your jaw is wired shut. You are gagged with duct tape. A wizard has turned you into a cocker spaniel. Otherwise, when you’d like another person to do something, it’s best not to express this to him or her in code: “I want you to meet my needs—right after you guess what they are!”
Passive-aggressiveness is a kind of coded communication, a form of “indirect speech,” which is a way of saying something without flat-out saying it. The term “passive-aggressive” was coined by a military psychologist, William Menninger, during World War II. He used it to describe soldiers who instead of saying no to a direct order (hello, ugly consequences!) wiggled out through “passive measures,” including “procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism.”
Menninger’s term was useful in military memos because, as historian Christopher Lane puts it, the Army couldn’t exactly issue a directive against “pouting.” However, there was no research to support it as anything more than a tactic in a certain situation as opposed to a “personality disorder.”
Yet, in the 1950s, a group of psychiatrists writing the first edition of the mental disorders bible, the DSM, took a big, unscientific leap. They willy-nilly added passive-aggressiveness to the list of personality disorders in the book, perhaps because without an official “disorder” label (and diagnostic codes that go with it), health insurance companies wouldn’t pay therapists to treat it.
But consider the weaselly, “passive-aggressive” tack those soldiers took. Though their indirect approach to getting their way was militarily unhelpful, it was anything but “maladaptive” for them personally. In other words, indirect communication like theirs is often adaptive. As I pointed out in a recent column, per psychologist Steven Pinker, it’s a crafty way to communicate a potentially inflammatory message without causing offense, the way baldly stating one’s feelings would. For example, there’s the social relationship-preserving hint about table manners, “Wow, Jason, you’re really enjoying that risotto!” instead of the more honest “Gross! You eat like a feral hog on roadkill!”
Thing is, avoiding causing offense can go too far, like when it’s driven by a long-held and unexamined belief that you’re offensive simply by existing and having needs. Understanding that, explore the root of your own passive-aggressive behavior. My guess? It’s fear of conflict, or fear of the results of conflict. At some point it was probably protective for you to avoid conflict and the direct engagement that could lead to it, like if you had a volatile and abusive parent. But as an adult, indirect communication should be a tool you use when it suits the situation, not a behavior you robotically default to.
Consider that conflict, when expressed in healthy, non-inflammatory ways, can be a positive thing, a source for personal and collective growth and deeper relationships. But to take advantage of this after years of auto-burying your feelings, you’ll need to start by articulating to yourself what you want in a particular situation. Next, while ignoring the protests of your fears, express your needs and/or feelings to the other person with healthy directness: “Hey, can you guesstimate how many minutes till you’re done with your work?” and maybe add, “I have a special dinner planned, and I don’t want it to get cold.”
Admittedly, some conflicts end up in gridlock. However, you’re far more likely to get your needs met if you don’t just fester with resentment or turn every relationship interaction into an intricate game of charades: “Sorry, honey. Still don’t get it. Are you angry or doing a rain dance?”
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