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Passive Aggressive vs. Assertive Behavior in Relationships


One of the most common reactions people have when I talk about my work in addressing passive aggressive behavior is an impassioned, “Passive aggression is so frustrating! I can’t stand passive aggressive people!” followed up by a quick and more sheepish, “Wait, what exactly is passive aggression again?”

In truth, there is a lot of confusion out there about the differences between outright aggression —defined as a spontaneous, unplanned act of anger that aims to hurt or destroy someone or something (Long, Long and Whitson, 2009) — and passive aggression, a far more deliberate, yet covert way of expressing anger in a way that subtly but surely “gets back at” someone. Whereas the aggressive person often acts on impulse and regrets his behavior in short order, the passive aggressive person typically derives genuine pleasure out of frustrating others — hence the term, angry smile.

A hallmark of the passive aggressive person is that he or she believes life will only get worse if other people know of his anger, so he expresses his thoughts and feelings indirectly, through characteristic behaviors as withdrawing from conversations (often with last words such as “fine” or “whatever”), sulking, procrastinating, carrying out tasks at sub-standard levels, sabotaging group efforts, and spreading rumors or discontent behind the scenes.

Sound familiar?

Now, the second most common question people ask me has to do with the difference between passive aggression and assertiveness. In many ways, the two styles are exact opposites. The former is marked by emotional indirectness while the latter is all about expressing anger in direct, verbal, emotionally honest ways. Whereas passive aggression is all about masked anger, assertiveness is about making friends with anger — owning it — and giving it a voice in a way that does not hurt or depreciate anyone else.

So, what does all of this look like in the real world — beyond communication theory and in the practice of real, person-to-person interactions? Below, I provide an example of how aggressive, passive aggressive, and assertive communication styles play out in a commonplace situation between a husband and a wife:

Husband’s Aggressive Request: “The least you could do is pick up my f*@%ing dry cleaning! And don’t forget this time like you did last week! Damn it — you never do anything right around here!”

Husband’s Passive Aggressive Request: “After you get your pedicure or do whatever it is you do all day while I’m at work, would you mind picking up my dry cleaning for me? That is, if you are not too busy

Husband’s Assertive Request: “Will you please pick up my dry cleaning for me on your way home tonight?”

Note the differences between the three ways that the husbands go about asking their partners to do the exact same favor. In the first example, the aggressive requestor goes right for his wife’s jugular — bringing up past mistakes, insulting her, cursing, and using “you” messages to rub salt into her open wound. The passive aggressive husband, in contrast, asks for things in a roundabout way, adding in backhanded jabs that are plain enough to hurt, while covert enough to be denied. In both scenarios, it is plain to see that each husband’s style is a clearly written invitation to both immediate and long-term conflict.

In the final example, the assertive husband makes a request that is straightforward and direct. He does not depreciate his partner nor does he disrespect her in any way. At the very least, he is efficient in his communication, saving time and effort by asking for help directly, simply, plainly, and with no hidden axe to grind.

When compared side to side, the distinctions between aggressive, passive aggressive, and assertive communication are abundantly clear. In the long run, passive aggression is even more destructive to interpersonal relationships than aggression and over time, all relationships with a person who is passive aggressive will become confusing, discouraging, and dysfunctional (Long, Long and Whitson, 2009).

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