I suspect I’ve been passive-aggressive my entire life. But not until recently did I realize how toxic these behaviors were to my relationships. Caught in the middle of another attempt to avoid conflict in my marriage, I had this realization that my current approach wasn’t working. My attempts at avoiding conflict seemed to result in more of it down the road. So, I started reading. And I stumbled upon passive-aggressiveness. I immediately noticed how prevalent passive-aggressive behaviors were to personality. I was also alarmed by how pervasive these behaviors were in my relational circles, from friendships to professional ties.
Passive-aggressiveness is a common response to conflict and confrontation in our culture. It’s also a highly toxic response. In most cases, these behaviors are more than situational. They’re deeply ingrained. Passive-aggressive behaviors affect all manner of relationships, from marriages to friendships to work circles. What’s more, when passive-aggression exists in a marriage, it is highly contagious and easily passed down to the next generation.
As a Christian, I believe passive-aggressiveness is a spiritual problem. It’s more than an unhealthy set of behaviors. It’s the by-product of several false ideas about God and skewed beliefs about what it means to live like Jesus. Here are a few examples.
Passive-aggression squashes honest self-expression.
Primarily I’m speaking of anger. Anger is a natural human emotion. To be fully human, you must express anger. But I wasn’t told that growing up. In fact, I was led to believe good people, particularly good Christians, don’t express anger. Yet, we see anger in Jesus more than once, particularly in his encounters with the Pharisees (Matt. 21:12-13). One of our primary goals as humans is to be fully human. This is one of the messages of the Incarnation. Passive-aggressiveness hinders this pursuit.
Passive-aggression avoids accountability, giving people a feeling of superiority.
Particularly in their most intimate relationships, passive-aggressive people avoid direct responsibility for their actions. Passive-aggressive people avoid accountability, in other words. In doing so, they miss one of the primary messages of Jesus, the call to change (or “repent”).
Passive-aggression promotes gossip.
Because passive-aggressive people avoid direct, honest confrontation, gossip is a common outlet for resentment and displeasure. Proverbs 16:28 says, “A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.” Gossip is a blatant sin according to basically every book in the Bible. It erodes relationships and trust. As Christians, we must not tolerate gossip, not from our own mouths or the mouths of others.
Passive-aggression is dishonest.
Passive-aggressive people speak dishonestly, especially if they believe speaking honestly will cause conflict or disagreement. They often say “yes” when they mean “no” and agree to do something when they don’t want to. This is dishonest speech, something Scripture speaks against directly and consistently. Jesus, however, always spoke honestly because he was truth (John 14:6). As Jesus himself says in John 8:32 “the truth will set you free.” Passive-aggressive people are often enslaved to unhealthy relationships because they refuse to speak honestly.
Those are a few reasons passive-aggressiveness is a spiritual problem. But those accomplish little in the way of identifying and correcting passive-aggressive behaviors. So let’s address some common behaviors of passive-aggressiveness. This list isn’t comprehensive. It’s more of a beginner’s guide, but chances are you can identify one or two or more of these behaviors and, if necessary, make appropriate changes.
Here are 9 common behaviors of passive-aggressive people.
1. They give others the silent treatment.
The silent treatment is a deliberate way to avoid communication. In intimate relationships like marriage, it’s a form of manipulation, a way to maintain control by keeping your spouse guessing. This plays out in other ways, such as withholding intimacy and affection. In this case, there is some communication, but it’s intentionally shallow and void of emotion.
2. They don’t speak openly and honestly when asked for your opinion.
Because they fear conflict and losing connection, they agree to do something they really don’t want to do. They say “yes” when they mean “no,” in other words. This breeds resentment and more times than not creates more conflict down the road, as the passive-aggressive person rarely follows through on what they’re asked to do.
3. They gossip and criticize others’ ideas.
This is another hallmark passive-aggressive behavior. Passive-aggressive people appear kind and compliant on the surface. They agree to others’ take on tasks, rarely voicing displeasure.
That is, until they meet Billy or Sherry for coffee. Then, the truth comes out. Passive-aggressive people often resort to gossip as a way to voice resentment or displeasure. And, as you can imagine, this creates a lot of dissension and distrust in their relationships.
4. They feel unappreciated and believe they’re treated unfairly.
Passive-aggressive people see everything as a personal attack. When things don’t go their way, it’s a declaration of the world’s unfairness. When their spouse or boss asks them to do something, they usually respond by saying how much they’re under-appreciated or taken for granted. In this way, they play the victim and maintain a perceived level of power and control over situations and people involved in them.
5. They blame others for their actions and feelings.
Here you see why passive-aggressiveness so toxic. Passive-aggressive people blame others as a way to avoid personal accountability. And because they blame others for their actions and feelings, they don’t grow. Instead, continuing to draw from the same toxic well and never looking in the mirror, they don’t change.
6. They rarely give straight answers.
You have a better chance of seeing a polar bear and a regular bear on the same day than receiving a straight answer from a passive-aggressive person. They send mixed messages, leaving others unclear about their thoughts and intentions. They do this to shirk responsibility. Passive-aggressive people always leave themselves an out. Here, regardless of the outcome, they can respond with, “You took that the wrong way. That’s not really what I meant.”
7. They procrastinate intentionally to frustrate others.
For some people, procrastination is a sub-conscious decision. For passive-aggressive people, however, the decision is very intentional. They delay completing tasks until the deadline is mere seconds away. In the meantime, they stall, make excuses and deliberately forget about the task as subtle ways to let someone know they don’t want to do the work. In this way, they retain a form of power and control, hoping the other person sees the writing on the wall and expects less of them moving forward.
8. They disguise criticism with sarcastic humor and compliments.
Passive-aggressive people tend to disguise their criticism and voice their displeasure using subtle humor or sarcasm. By making others feel bad, they’re attempting to maintain superiority. And if you try confronting a passive-aggressive person over their behavior, sarcasm gives them a way out, typically responding with “I was only playing” or “You should learn how to take a joke.”
9. They assume the worst-case scenario, even when things are going well.
Here’s a prime example of the damage one that results from passive-aggressiveness. Over time, these behaviors erode personal self-confidence and general trust in others. Most passive-aggressive people believe worst-case scenarios are inevitable. What’s worse, they believe they deserve this outcome. So, it’s unfortunately true that many of their relationships are doomed before they begin.
Passive-aggressive behaviors deserve more attention in Christian circles. It negatively shapes our relationships more than we realize. I pray we carefully and humbly look at our lives, identify passive-aggressive behaviors, and make necessary changes.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.