by Scott Wetzer, PhD

    A colleague disagrees with you over his role in a new project.  He says nothing.. then a week later badmouths you to a major client.
    You make romantic overtures to your spouse before bed.  She isn't interested.  Instead of responding nicely, she says, "Don't you have to get up very early tomorrow morning?"
    Passive-aggressiveness is a destructive personality disorder.  All of us used this behavior when we wee children to rebel abainst authority.  However, some people never outgrow it.  They sabotage marriges and/or careers-preying on spouses, children and coworkers.
    Most of us occasionally lapse into passive-aggressive behavior as adults.  This is especially true in situations wehre we have little control or have to deal with large bureaucracies or a domineering boss or spouse.  We do such things as ignore orders or skirt rules because it makes us feel powerful.
    Passive-Aggressiveness results from feeling powerless and fearful.  As the name suggests, people with the disorder strike out passively because they want to cause you pain and are afraid to show anger.

*Manipulators make uncertain commitments.  They create confuion and blame others for misinterpreting the mixed messages they send.

*Promise-makers rarely follow through.  They procrastinate, then artfully evade responsibility for their actions.

*Reality-twisters turn situations around so that THEY are the victims suffering YOUR anger and discontent, no matter how wrong they are.

*Sulkers regard you as overbearing and controlling if you offer useful suggestions for them to help heselves.


*Set boundaries.  Be clear about what behavior is acceptable to you.  Enforce the rules, or he/she won't take you seriously.
          Example:  Your spouse constantly writes checks without registering them in the checkbook.  Eah ime there is an overdraft, you have to straighten out the account at the bank.  Tell him how his actions bother YOU.  Say, "It's humiliating for me to fix these mistakes.  I feeel that you're being disrespectful to me."  Then explain the consequences.  Say, "I can no longer keep our checkbook alone.  You will have to help." 
Avoid sweeping criticisms.  They provoke defensive and unproductive responses.  Stay specific.  Keep your tone firm, but don't make him feel that you're being vindictive or authoritarian.
Beware:   Passive-Aggressive people have an unerring instinct for tapping the weak spot in your willpower, so stick to your standards of acceptable behavior.

*Maintain self-control. A passive-aggressve person needs an adversary to make him feel powerful.  If you  retaliate with threats and recriminations, you reinforce his behavior.
          Example:  You and your spouse are shopping for a new home.  You want your spouse's input, but she keeps making sarcastic, evasive remarks.  If you get upset and say, "Why am I wasting my time even looking with you?" then your spouse has sucked you into her behavior.  She now can play the victimand say, "Can't you take a joke? Why are you jumping all over me?  Buying a house is supposed to be a team effort.  Why are you ruining it?"  Instead of focusing on her anger, listen for feelings of fear and powerlessness.  Ask yourself, "Why is my spouse being so evasive?  Is she worried about the money or te move?"  Confront  her in nonthreatening ways.  Tell her how her words make you feel.  Say, "Discussing the house is important to me.  When you make jokes, it upsets me - I think you're not interested.  It would be helpful to me if you would talk about your thoughts on moving."
Beware:  Passive-aggressive people cloud issues with petty arguments.  Stay focused and restate your point.
Helpful:  If you can't talk without overreacting, write your feelings in a note that your spouse can read in a neutral setting later.

*Make the passive-aggressive feel valued.  Remind him of his strengths and the opportunities available to him.
          Example:  Your colleague loses out on a promotion.  He responds by skipping in important meeting.   Instead of allowing him to sabotage his job and your department, point out the constructive choices he can make.  He could use the situation as a catalyst to get a new job with a company that better appreciates his  talents, or he could continue his good performance and perhaps get a shot at another promotion.

*Get the passive-aggressive to express his anger appropriately.  If he learns to express anger constructively, you both will benefit.  If he does open up, avoid criticizing.  This also might be a good time to suggest that he consider psychological counseling.


    Have you set deadlines for improvement that have passed?  Is this person harmful to your mental health or your ability to function? If so, consider firing him or breaking off the relationship.
    Cutting ties gradually or remaining friends with a passive-aggressive doesn't work.  He will reform just enough to draw you close again, then fall back into old patterns.  Physical distance without contact is the only way to make an effective break.
    If you are in an office situation where firing the passive-aggressive or quitting yourself isn't an option, then keep him at a distance.  Don't let him interfere with your productivity or work enfironment.  Protect yourself and your interests.

*Stop fixing things for him or getting caught up int he details of his screw-ups.  Allow him to fail.  Perhaps he will be fired or transferred.

*Use daily memos to document your accomplishments.  On joint projects with him, describe in detail the allocation of responsibilities.

*Never rely on him in a crisis.  He is the person most likely to freeze or withdraw when you need someone to act fast and wisely.