In town, I am buying buckwheat flakes at the health food store. Taking my purchase to the counter I stare at the sign which has irritated me before and irritates me now. It’s so passive-aggressive, and of all the ways in which we can dismantle goodwill, this is surely one of the most unattractive and pervasive.
A while ago I wrote about the man across the road, presumably irked by what he considered inconsiderate parking on my part, who positioned his car so close to mine that the bumpers almost touched. Passive aggression on this level is so obvious and pathetic that it’s practically laughable, but when it is used in a way so subtle that it can almost go unnoticed it is at its most destructive.
If I think about the number of times I have answered the question “What’s the matter?” with the words “Nothing, I’m fine” it must run into the hundreds. If I similarly ask myself how many of those times it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t end up far short of the total. People close to us know when something is wrong.
I often hear people tell me that they don’t like conflict. It stirs something in me immediately. I am instantly transported back to the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. My mother and father biting back at one another above my head while I, apparently invisible to the protagonists, do my best to block it out.
It was years until I made the connection between my unwillingness to share true feelings and the almost primal fear that doing so might lead me into a conflict which felt just like the horror I experienced across that kitchen table.
But the urge for conflict doesn’t disappear when we feel hurt, cheated, wronged, misunderstood. Instead, we find other ways of expressing it and being passive aggressive is the easiest but most damaging.
Avoidance is the weapon of choice for the passive aggressive and this too is mightily dysfunctional in a relationship. Instead of being honest about your desires you make excuses that aren’t really true to avoid things you don’t want to do.
If you’ve ever “ghosted” someone, or if you ever said “Yes” and then made a feeble excuse at the last minute you’re being passive-aggressive. It’s deeply unattractive and, in the end, it will kill even the most seemingly harmonious union.
But it doesn’t end here. The passive-aggressive has a multiplicity of ways to screw up a perfectly good relationship.
The passive-aggressive is eternally pessimistic about the relationship (due to their own low self-worth) and will tell you that “nothing lasts forever”.
The passive aggressive will continue to punish and sulk long after the end of an argument leaving their partner wondering what on earth happened. Conversely, they will diminish their partners legitimate hurt using phrases like “why are you getting so upset?”
The passive aggressive says “Yes” and then resents it, and will guilt trip you when they find they don’t have the ability to ask for what they really want, blaming you for their own shortcomings.
You might recognise yourself in some of this, or you might recognise your partner. Either way, these behaviours will be toxic to your relationships and will dismantle them from the ground up.
Standing at the counter waiting to pay while the lady continues her conversation with a man who sounds like the shop owner I am struck by the irony of the juxtaposition between the sign and her ignoring me to finish a chat. I consider getting out my phone and pretending to talk but I remember what my daughter would tell me about that. She’d say “Dad, you’re just being passive aggressive”.