What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Have you ever had someone go belly-up when you asked them to do something?

They might tell you they’ll follow-through, and they might even make some meager attempt at action. But ultimately the thing doesn’t get done — or doesn’t get done right.

Or maybe you’ve been in a conflict with someone, and rather than addressing the issue directly, they pout or act sullen.

These are examples of passive-aggressive behavior — a strange sort of non-action powered by an assortment of negative emotions, motivations, or downright hostility.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand passive-aggressive behavior — not that I haven’t used it myself on occasion.

But I truly believe it is the bottom-dweller of behavior. It’s the skulking, cowardly, manipulative way to get what you want or get out of doing what you don’t want. It is the ultimate in avoidance and obfuscation.

So What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Passive aggressive behavior can manifest in many ways but has the common feature of non-verbal negativity, resistance, and confusion. In relationships, it is a form of emotional abuse that is insidiously destructive to open and honest communication.

young girl on grass pouting passive aggressive behaviour

Frequently it rears its ugly head in the form of procrastination, learned helplessness, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or purposeful failure to handle requested tasks.

Other common passive-aggressive examples include:

  • Being ambiguous or speaking cryptically to create insecurity or confusion or to hide one’s own insecurities.
  • Making chronic excuses for lack of follow-through or poor performance.
  • Creating drama or chaotic situations.
  • Procrastinating at the expense of others.
  • Being chronically late or forgetting things in order to control or punish.
  • Avoiding intimacy through anger or negativity.
  • Using guilt or sulking to punish or gain attention.
  • Blaming others for mistakes or conflict.
  • Creating intentional obstructions to punish or get one’s own way.
  • Being argumentative, critical, or resentful to punish or get one’s own way.
  • Being unresponsive or non-communicative to avoid discomfort or conflict.
  • Withholding kindness, love, or actions (such as sex or favors) to punish.
  • Sabotaging (either overtly or covertly) the efforts or relationships of others.

Why Do People Use Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Nearly all of us have resorted to passive-aggressive behavior at some point. We’ve all pouted, play the guilt card, or given the silent treatment on occasion.

When we feel hurt or angry, the child in us will emerge, and rather than throw a full-blown temper tantrum, we try to soothe ourselves with back-door naughty behavior.

man headshot smiling what is passive agressive behavior

However, you may have encountered someone in your life who regularly resorts to passive-aggressive behavior. They have very few skills at healthy communication or dealing with conflict.

Every hurt or angry feeling is handled with subterfuge.

These behaviors almost always stem from a childhood environment in which the child did not feel safe to express his or her emotions or frustrations.

It could have been a situation where the parents were addicted to drugs or there was verbal, physical, or emotional abuse. Perhaps there were parents who were controlling or excessively punitive — or even physically or mentally ill.

Related: 15 Of The Best Ways To Thrive With A Reserved Personality

Or it simply could have been a scenario in which the parents conducted their own lives through passive-aggressive habits.

Families in which the honest expression is not permitted or encouraged for any reason ultimately teach their own children to repress and deny true feelings. The children learn to resort to passive aggression to express pain and frustration.

Sadly, children who sugarcoat or mask their hostility and pain may never evolve beyond this behavior.

Because they never learned coping strategies or skills to express themselves authentically, they grow into adults who harbor vindictive intent behind seemingly harmless attitudes or behavior.

How Do You Deal With A Passive-Aggressive Person?

  • Recognize and understand passive-aggressive behavior when you see it. Sometimes it is so insidious that you can feel confused or at fault. But once you recognize a pattern of this behavior, accept that you are not to blame.
  • Create healthy boundaries for yourself so you aren’t manipulated or taken advantage of by a passive-aggressive person. Call out dishonesty or rudeness.
  • Refresh your own communication skills so that you can respond to passive-aggressive behavior with maturity and honesty.
  • Calmly communicate your desire for authentic behavior and actions and ask your partner, spouse, friend, or loved one to work on a new way of dealing with pain and conflict. Suggest coaching or counseling if appropriate.
  • Be understanding of the circumstances that created the passive-aggressive behavior. Most of it is based in emotional pain and misplaced anger.

woman headshot smiling what is passive agressive behavior

What If You See Passive-Aggressive Behavior In Yourself?

  • Look back at your childhood and try to recognize the cause of these behaviors in yourself. Understanding the cause goes a long way in healing the reaction. Try to forgive your parents for their lack of understanding or courage.
  • Examine the impact your behavior has on your relationships and on your own self-esteem. Recognize that these negative behaviors only hurt you and push others away.
  • Accept complete and total responsibility for your actions, behaviors, mistakes, and failures.
  • Learn healthy and acceptable communication skills and techniques. Learn appropriate ways to channel and express anger and emotional pain. A counselor or life coach can help you with this.
  • Address problems and issues directly, quickly, and honestly. Avoidance or resistance almost always prolongs anguish and makes it worse.
  • Learn to accept yourself and your feelings as valid and worthy. If you weren’t allowed to express feelings as a child and never felt heard, you may not feel confident about opening yourself up and living authentically. You have a right to open self-expression.

Loving and supportive relationships are the fabric of a happy and fulfilled life. And healthy communication and mature behavior are the essential elements of all successful relationships.

Related: 10 Signs You Are The Rarest Personality Type In The World

If passive-aggressive behavior plays a role in any of your relationships, I encourage you to place it in the spotlight so that it can be healed and transformed by awareness and understanding.

Did you find any value from learning about passive-aggressive behavior?

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28 thoughts on “What Is Passive Aggressive Behavior?”

  1. Hi Barrie,

    Passive-Aggressive behavior can certainly get in the way of a healthy relationship, and I appreciate your tips on how to handle the situation. As you mentioned in your post, fear of intimacy may be the root of the problem, stemming from childhood experiences. At some point we all need to take responsibility for our behavior, and with mature adults, there is no room for passive-aggressive behavior.

    • Hi Cathy,
      That fear of intimacy can really create some strange behaviors. It seems like many people who rely on PA behavior have no idea how to operate otherwise. It think it takes a whole lot of conflict before they get the message, and a strong desire to change. Cathy, I’m sure you’ve encountered many people dealing with this in your work. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • I can trace my spouse’s Pa/controlling behavior to circumstances/events that he feels he has no control over. He won’t get help or resolve problems. Calmly communicating is getting challenging for me now! Any other suggestions?

  2. I can definitely relate to this. For many years I was P.A. and can trace that to childhood where I was greeted with a wooden spoon when I expressed myself. I have found that as I forgave my mom, and myself, the less P/A behavior showed up in my interactions. What I am still working on is learning to communicate to others without fear and doing so in a timely manner.

    • Hi Debbie,
      How wonderful that you’ve recognized it and the cause, and you are working to change. That’s the best any of us can do, right? A wooden spoon??!!! I hope you mom has come to recognize how destructive her behavior was. I am glad you’ve found forgiveness. I believe the only way to overcome fear of honest communication is through practice. The more you learn that it will actually set you free, the easier it becomes. 🙂

  3. Wow Barrie, just plain WOW!

    “Children should be seen, not heard.” I don’t know where this phrase actually got its origin, but I think it was (is) a “house rule” in far too many households. Could it be that my grandparents grew up in Norway and Sweden with a daily dose of this unhealthy medicine?

    It seems to me that in order to have a shot at mental and emotional stability, children MUST be seen AND heard. This poses a real challenge for parents who, themselves, grew up in households where a child expressed him/herself only at great peril! It’s no wonder that passive-aggressive behavior is such a convenient “coping” tool.

    Many thanks for providing us with that ever-present WOW factor in your posts. You cause us to think, and rethink about stuff that that really matters :-)!

    All the best,


    • Dear Jon, you have made my day with your lovely comments! Thank you. Yes, it’s a wonder any of us had a chance at healthy relationships given the communication and emotional difficulties of our parents. I’m probably “preaching to the choir” here, because those seeking out personal growth info are seeking to grow and learn. It’s those who have their heads buried and their eyes closed that need a wake-up call. Learning never stops, does it? 🙂

  4. I don’t think it’s “fair” that you used a photo of a happily submissive dog as the poster child for passive-aggressive behavior! That dog is giving PERFECT communication!

    Of course, I’m just teasing you; this is not a call for more political correctness!

    I do believe if we all acted with as much openness, orderly pack structure, and live-in-the-momentness as a emotionally healthy dog, the world would be a much better place in which to live!

    • Hi Meg,
      I know! That sweet dog is just begging for a belly-rub. No aggression whatsoever. (Although he is being very manipulative with his sweetness to get that rub!) You are so right — if we could all be in the moment and open with one another, the world would be better.

    • Hi Veronica,
      I think we have all gone through this with our kids. We use PA to get them to comply, they learn it and repeat it, and it creates a cycle. I am trying so hard not to use it with my teenagers. They call me out on it anyway!

  5. Great post Barrie!

    I feel like one of the biggest reasons my last relationship failed was because of passive aggressiveness…and both of us did it.

    I read every word of your article, and I really felt like you wrote this post JUST for me since I can relate or think of someone who can relate to this type of behavior!

    • You aren’t alone with that Alex. I think we all have suffered in relationships because of PA behavior — by ourselves or the other person or both. It’s great you have learned from it. That will go such a long way in helping you with the next relationship. Just be sure you find an equally mature and healthy-minded partner! 🙂

  6. Hi, Barrie,

    Great post and timely, too. PA has been quite the topic of discussion amongst my friends, lately; especially since we’ve all been dealing with extended family during the holidays.

    I feel like I want to preface family get-togethers with, ‘Say what you mean and mean what you say!’

    Being PA is the cowards way out. It’s a way to put forth your simmering anger in an ‘acceptable way’ without taking responsibility for your feelings or what you’ve said.

    Thanks for sharing this.


  7. i need help finding some information on passive aggressive behaviours that my son has displayed for many years. I have tried for a long time to figure out why and how i can deal with this situation..i am at my wits end. please any information would really be helpful at this time..

  8. Thank you, Barrie, for your terrific insight. All my siblings are P.A. and it is very difficult being around them. One sibling in particular has said some horrible things to me and thinks nothing of it, has never apologized and feigns that i’m the one with the problem. Her behaviour has ramped-up since our Mother’s death a few years ago, to the point where she is spreading malicious gossip about me. It is very difficult to understand, except that i know she has been jealous of me for her whole life. I know the 2 are tied-in, the jealousy and the P.A. behaviour. I once asked her to apologize for calling me names, and she refused, saying that she never apologizes to anyone for anything. She has convinced our siblings that they should go along with her, and for the most part, they do. I had a lot of trouble understanding this until i read your webpages. So, thank you for all the insight you have provided! It’s a relief to read such wise advice.

  9. I was dating a guy who seemed charming and attentive but after a few dates his thin veneer started to reveal behaviour that I had never experienced in the dating world. I’m an adult and have dated a lot since my teens. Usually I see through a guy within a date or two but I was really keen on this particular passive aggressive guy (PA) but it sort of crept up on me what it was that he was actually doing to me. This guy had me worrying that he was dating tons of girls at once because he wanted me to chase him, to show how keen I was. He seemed like some sort of player but as time wore on, I think all he was doing was ‘pacing and spacing’ our dates—drip-feeding me dates—to keep me keen and on my toes to the point that I would ask him out about 5 times before he would accept. He always dangled himself as available, willing, interested. Like I said he was charming, successful, classy, we went to wonderful top notch restaurants. He had the aire about him that he was chilled and easy going and always up for spontinaity. But I later realissed: No way. He always had some lame excuse to a turn down a fun invitation, great meet up opportunity or a wonderful date idea. Like being away on business or he was ill. He would say he was away but never mention where he had to go to or when he would be back in town. I’d ask him out for a Friday night, he’d say he was busy but didn’t suggest any other times he was available but at the same time was hinting he wanted to definately go out again soon. I thought the problem was me, that I was ‘rusty’ about the dating scene and that I was making unfair predictions/wishes about how things should develop between us. But the pace NEVER stepped up. Despite passionate kisses outside restaurants etc since date No. 1, I’d be shown my bus stop quite early in the evening after Dates No. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc. Always the same sort of date: Charm at the beginning, side-stepping intimacy, side-stepping notitions about a future date, side-stepping some very direct questions about anything personal/intimate/get-to-know-you. I thought, for two passionate adults like us kissing like crazy on streetcorners, the guy really ought to be at least try to ask me to go back to his place. But he never did. I’d invite him over to mine but he would come up with a boyish excuse of ‘getting up early’ the next day or some such. If he said, ‘I’m busy this week at a conference but I’m around next week, we should go out sometime then.’ I would then look forward to seeing him, would bide my time and that when he asked me out the next time I thought he ‘would be ready to take things deeper’. But no. When I thought he would be free, he’d be busy. Or he would respond to a text message, say he was back in town but not mention a date idea. Always busy with something else very lame and boyish. I doubted he was ever away on business. “I need to go grocery shopping.” or “My laptop broke.” or “I have flu”. In a 5 month timeframe he had flu about 3 times which lasted about a 5 days or more at a time. Yeah right. We went on about a dozen dates in total. I have short hair and he obviously found me physically attractive but to be honest he probably paid me 2-3 unspecific compliments during our entire dating experience. I would dress up and look amazing. He’d make an effort but not too much of an effort. He’d arrive late. Talk about himself quite a bit. He never really asked me about anything really. I reached over the table to hold his hand during a jazz performance once. His response was to lean forward and rather than kiss me, he rubbed the back of my hair the wrong way like a kind of ‘man-handled’ unnecessary and unaffectionate massage gesture. I know I have short hair and it must look soft to touch but this was not what I would call a loving or caring gesture. The thing with a PA guy, is that you can’t always put your finger on the situation, a finger on the kooky phrases he’ll blurt out, or put a finger on why it is that something feels ‘not right’ about a situation but its all becuase their behaviour, turn of phrase, body language, teasing-but-really-meaning it etc is always just that little bit odd or borderline or I wondered if I heard him correctly etc etc. It’s hurtful, I told him so. He disappeared for a month and sulked. When I text him, he texts back in seconds but rarely texts me. Typical dumb s*** that is really annoying, time wasting but yet hopeful me wants to make it to Stage 2 of the relationship because I feel I have invested so much time into it, that I deserve Stage 2. Yeah right. He’s likely home right now watching TV, he might be thinking about me but he won’t text or invite me out. It’s because I want to go out again and he wants to control that.

    • Passive agressives tend to be avoidants. Avoidants always keep the upper hand and power position in any conflict situation by being the partner of ‘lower desire’ – they intuitively know that the lower desire partner always controls whether any conflict gets handled fairly or collaboratively, and this way they get to be the one to handle it any way they want.

  10. Thanks for this. I just spent the worst week off with my mother. Just realised that I had been putting up with passive aggressive behaviour over many years. I didn’t see it before until recently. I feel like a weight has been lifted. She is terribly embittered and has very low self-esteem. Hostile, resentful, angry and full of disapproval. Intolerable to be around in all honesty! I am aware now so that’s good…..

  11. This was a wonderful posting, and I recognised myself in it. I come from the British upper classes (yes to my shame we are class ridden in the UK), and I was never allowed to express emotions, especially anger or frustration. If I did, then I was being, rude or naughty, I was allowed to be seen, but never heard. On one occasion, I think I must have thrown a hissy fit, my grandmother, who brought me up with a nanny, lay down on the floor, and told me she was going to die if I did not behave. I am now in my late 40’s successful, extremely well educated and have been married for 20 years. I also have serious Bipolar Disorder, something I’ve probably had all my life but it has only been treated correctly in the last 6 years. I can see that I’ve resorted to P/A frequently, but I have found that CBT has helped understan and break the habit. It can, be unlearned but it takes bravery to see the problem, and courage to act accordingly.

    I have come a long way, but I find that I still cannot forgive my father for his constant angry state, and his propensity to resort to physical violence. I still loath him although he has been a long time dead. But I am equipped to see the P/A behaviour he bequeathed to me.

    So thank you once again for your wonderful article.

  12. I was trying to understand Townsend’s advice about boundaries nearly 20 years ago. My life has been sabotaged, and at the age of 64 I realize it’s the entire clan. I lost my wife through my own dysfunction and she married again. I could not realize how much it costs to establish boundaries in a clan where everyone takes their life choices and communication styles based on the patriarch (who is a psychologist) and his wife. Nobody would empathize with my perspective since I didn’t intimidate like everyone else. (not my real name at all)


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