Dealing with Passive Aggressive Abuse

“Letting go is not the same as giving up, it is often just a change in directions to find a better way.” – Quote from Alcoholics Anonymous. (Attribution lost.)

Abuse comes in many forms and, for me, the deeply hurtful and corrosive techniques of passive aggression are the hardest to deal with. They hurt the victim in many ways and cost the user, their friends and their work greatly. The bruises and scars are real even if they aren’t visible . Many suffer from passive aggression and understanding how it works and finding ways to deal with it has allowed me, in this essay, to take the final step of sharing my experience in the hope of helping others to deal with abuse.

Abuse is something we all deal with. Abuse is not a gender, a role, a position, a fist, a stick, a word or an act of overt violence. It is a repeated sequence of action intended to hurt without any external need. Passive aggressive abuse has these characteristics; the abuser is hard to deal with, makes you feel uncomfortable, seldom or never expresses their anger and hostility and repeats their actions over time. It’s anger and hostility expressed in an underhanded way. A spouse may promise to pay a bill but simply not do it even when money and time are available and then refuse to explain why.

A colleague at work may accept work assignments without question or complaint, screw them up and then not ask for help or report the problem. They may do this even when the results are absolutely certain to reduce their own quality of life. They may do it over and over again. Why they act this way is about how they’ve learned to deal with problems and trying to figure it out is something they need to do. What you need to do is deal with the immediate problem and the pattern of behaviour that caused it.

First (and hardest) – don’t take it personally. It’s their problem, don’t make it yours. Deal with the immediate problem as effectively as possible and then give yourself time to cool off. Second – be patient. Give them some time to simmer down and for the situation to work itself out. Third – explain the problem calmly and clearly and without being overbearing or aggressive. Explain, don’t attack. Set boundaries and show why they need to exist. Suggest that they think about their own behaviour and do something about it. Fourth – act before it’s too late. Everyone has a limit. If the passive aggressive abuser doesn’t recognize their problems and deal with it then you have to before something irrevocable occurs.

Making a plan and acting on it is much better than simply snapping and losing control after one intentional screwup too many. No one has a right to make you a victim no matter what their reasons. Better to take a deep breath and let go the relationship, fire the employee or quit the job than be driven to the bitter end. Passive aggression is a very common pattern of behaviour and we all do it now and then. But having it as your personal default is destructive and capable of breaking anything; be it a marriage, a career or a project.

If you understand this pattern of behaviour you can deal with it before it deals with you.


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