Passive aggression a different kind of abuse

Gone are the days when we married the person next door, had clear gender role expectations, had a few kids and a predictable plan for the future.

By Samineh I Shaheem

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Published: Sat 27 Nov 2010, 9:13 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 9:58 AM

Today, we live in times where our world is getting smaller, we have more choices, faced with a multitude of different value systems and may struggle to understand the sometimes ambiguous and complex tenets of relationships, leading to a sea of misunderstandings. A certain amount of conflict is necessary of course, since those discussions, arguments and debates result in the two individuals becoming closer and having a greater understanding of one another.

However, what happens when these difficulties escalate above and beyond the healthy realms of personal interaction?

Unfortunately, this escalation of dysfunctional dealings can take many forms such as physical or verbal abuse, neglect and various forms of coercion and manipulation. Needless to say, the consequences of being in an abusive relationship are many, including lowered self-esteem and confidence, physical injury, psychological disorders such as anxiety, panic attacks or depression, living in a constant fear, confusion, self doubt and an inability to manage day to day activities and social engagements.

A much more subtle form of abuse, yet equally damaging and devastating to one’s health, results from a disorder referred to as passive-aggressive personality type. Here, the passive aggressive individual does not like confrontations and will deal with tension and conflict in an under handed, unhelpful and indirect way, without addressing the issue or communicating their feelings to their partner.

As Dr. Hall-Flavin explains, people who are passive-aggressive appear to agree with the requests of others and may even seem enthusiastic. But they don’t perform a requested action on time or in a useful way, and may even work against it. Therefore they use non-verbal behaviour to express anger or resentment that they can’t express verbally, leaving the people around them feeling confused, angry, frustrated and lost.

A typical scenario demonstrating the passive aggressive personality type would be, for example, a husband who is supposed to come home at 6pm to take his wife to a recent course she signed up for. He doesn’t show up till 8pm and can’t be reached on the phone. Upon arrival, he explains that his car broke down, couldn’t get assistance and left his phone at the office by mistake. All these excuses seem quite reasonable and this situation could happen to any of us, right? There’s just one problem; the real reason for the partners tardiness isn’t because of the car breaking down, it’s because he doesn’t like his wife attending the course so he handles the situation in an indirect way, interrupting her chances of growth, yet still trying to save his image of an understanding husband. When asked repeatedly if he did it on purpose, he denies it till his last breath.

The causes are still unknown however we know that a combination of genetic and environmental factors are probably responsible. The DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes some symptoms of the passive-aggressive personality as including:

l Procrastinating and putting things off

l Saying that they have “forgotten” to do things others ask

l Being stubborn, inflexible and selfish

l Dogmatic and judgmental towards others however they think they can do no wrong

l Disliking people who are in charge, or having a bad attitude towards authority

l Nagging or complaining frequently but never directly to the person

l Working poorly or slowly on purpose to frustrate others

l Thinking they should be appreciated and acknowledged much more

l Blaming problems on others rather than taking responsibility

l Being irritable and agitated

l Communicating in a vague way

l Gets incredibly defensive to the slightest criticism

l Being economical with the truth

l Disliking the ideas of other people, even if they are useful

l Arguing frequently, illogically, even when they know they are wrong

The biggest challenge for these individuals is that they are not very sensitive and lack insight or self-awareness therefore they will rarely admit to having a problem. Forcing them to get help will just perpetuate their untrue ideas about others hating them, wanting to set them up for failure, or that they are just jealous.

Usually what happens is that after many years of frustration and pain, people who suffer from a passive aggressive personality disorder will be abandoned by friends and loved ones who simply do not have the tolerance anymore for their unfulfilled promises, waterfall of love and attention after a huge argument and denying wrongdoing or underhanded and deceitful ways. It is during this time, sadly often too late, when the affected person reaches out for help.

What needs to be considered very carefully here is that the symptoms shouldn’t be dealt with initially, instead the source of anger that drives the individual needs to be discovered and understood. Recovery is only possible when the underlying reasons have been fully explored and admitted.

—Samineh I Shaheem is an author, an assistant professor of psychology, currently lecturing in Dubai, as well as a cross cultural consultant at the Human Relations Institute. She has appeared on numerous radio programs and conferences and has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the United Sates of America, UK, Netherlands, and the UAE. Please forward your thoughts to

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