Mary told her husband (respectfully) that his comment felt hurtful. She suggested that he could have spoken to her differently and offered a response that would have felt supportive and kind. Her husband erupted with anger. Who was she to be the judge and jury of him? He wasn’t interested in being controlled by her with her scripts and the words she needed to hear. Mary, who is normally mild-mannered and compromising, exploded with rage. She accused her husband of being defensive and fragile, so fragile as to not even be able to hear or care about her feeling hurt. She was yelling, demanding to know how, when given the opportunity to be supportive, complimentary, and essentially her fan, he could and would make the choice to be unsupportive, uncomplimentary, and cutting. She was sick and tired of his unkindness.
Her husband didn’t miss a beat and accused her of being too sensitive, twisting his words to mean something they didn’t. Mary, becoming even more furious, shouted that it wasn’t about him and him and more him, but rather about the fact that his words had hurt her. And it went on . . . her husband, deaf to her pain, accused her of judging him, to which she again responded that this was not about him, not about who was right or wrong, but rather about his being able to simply hear the fact that she was hurt.
Later that day, Mary called to tell me that her husband had approached her about an hour after the session and acknowledged that maybe his words could have come off as a bit insensitive. While she was still brimming with anger and hurt, Mary had offered a simple thank you for your apology. It was the first time he had owned up to any of his own behavior in 20 years of marriage. And so, while his “apology” felt light on empathy, she made the choice to acknowledge his attempt at kindness and leave it at that, and not risk doing or saying anything that could discourage him from this new, positive behavior.
But the following week, Mary reported that her husband had become withdrawn, sullen, and unfriendly. He was playing the part of the one hurt and angry, while she had stepped into the role of the one trying to win back his affection and regain a sense of peace in the couple.
This was the standard trajectory of their disagreements. Mary would be hurt by something her husband said or did; she would then bring it to his attention. Upon hearing what he perceived (only) as criticism, he would immediately attack her emotionally (which I had witnessed), and then withdraw into his role as the victim in the relationship. As a victim, he would become silent, non-responsive, and backhandedly unkind towards her over the next several days. He would, in essence, fall into full-blown episodes of passive aggression.
Mary and I had both felt hopeful the previous week when her husband was able to take a baby step forward in acknowledging his own behavior and considering how it might have affected her. And yet, it seemed that his old pattern of reverting to passive aggression after hearing he had done something she didn’t like was still firmly intact.
Mary confessed that she was completely lost as to how to deal with her husband’s behavior. She still wanted to stay in the marriage (and still loved her husband), but his passive aggression, which appeared each time she shared that he had upset her, felt unbearable and maddening. She was utterly unable to find her ground or feel at ease when he was in this mode. She couldn’t get okay until the couple was again okay.
Mary felt that she had always been stuck in the same place with regard to her husband’s passive aggression. Unable to speak her truth, she felt that her only recourse was to wait for him to get over it, after which time she could get back to her own center. But of course, when he did get over it, she then was left to deal with her own anger and hurt. Regardless, her well-being was dependent on his behavior, which she hated.
But while she felt stuck, I reminded Mary that something profound had in fact transformed within her. When we first started working together, Mary would actually feel guilty when her husband punished her in this way. She would identify with his projections of blame and try to make up for the hurt she imagined she had caused him. She would play the perpetrator (having told him he hurt her after all) to his imagined victim; she stepped into his projections and took on the role of the bad one. I was happy to remind Mary that she no longer felt guilty in any way despite his playing the part of the one abused. This was an enormous change in her and a huge relief.
While Mary could acknowledge that she was no longer suffering from this most insidious consequence of passive aggression (imagining oneself as deserving of the punishment), she was however still frustrated that she felt so anxious and de-stabilized, that she couldn’t get comfortable inside herself when her husband was acting out in this way. No matter what she did for herself, how much meditation and awareness she practiced, or how she tried to separate herself from it, she still felt afraid and off-kilter living with his punishing behavior. She was angry and disappointed with herself that she couldn’t get a grip on her experience. She couldn’t will herself into well-being, but she strongly believed that she should be able to control her inner experience regardless of what was going on in her environment.
Simultaneously, Mary was bottling up a lot of rage about the fact that she couldn’t speak her truth to her husband. In the past, when she had tried to call him out on his behavior, he had attacked her more directly and denied all responsibility and intention for his behavior. Her trying to talk about it had always made things worse, and so she felt resigned to acting as if nothing was happening. Pretending he wasn’t affecting her was the way she had learned to protect herself. The truth was, he was getting to her; she felt manipulated, controlled, and humiliated by his behavior. Enraged, in fact.
However, this pretending to not notice, to save face if you will, was breaking down as a defense strategy; it felt impossible to maintain this level of falseness, and also, more and more like an abandonment of herself. It was making her angrier and more anxious to know that he was (as she experienced it) cornering her into being inauthentic. Mary felt stuck in this either-or scenario. Either she confronted someone angry, reactive, and not self-aware and faced the consequences of that scary choice, which also included acknowledging that he was hurting her (and therefore winning in her mind), or, she pretended nothing was happening, pretended to be Teflon to his aggression, and in the meanwhile went on living in an anxious, disconnected, and angry state of being. Neither felt doable for much longer.
When I asked Mary what she wanted to scream from the rooftops, she said this (without hesitation): I did nothing wrong. I’m the one who was hurt! And now, I’m the one being punished. What the hell! But instead, she went on smiling, asking if he wanted milk with his coffee, and being the person she wished he could be with her.
The first thing I wanted Mary to know was that there was nothing wrong with feeling anxious and angry. Living with someone who’s acting out in this way is bloody awful. Her expectation that she should be able to feel well in an environment that was so un-well was absurd. She was not made of Teflon, and as humans, we are relational and porous beings; we are affected and impacted by our environment. So right out of the gate, I insisted Mary stop blaming herself for feeling anxious and off-center. If she didn’t, I’d think something was wrong!
With regard to her desire to stop pretending she wasn’t being affected, I asked her a simple question: What was it was like to be with her husband when he was treating her this way? She erupted with tears upon hearing the question. After some time, she was able to share that it felt painful, unfair, unkind, hurtful, and just terrible in every way. I asked her if she could stay with these feelings and maybe see if there was also any sense of I don’t want to be treated this way, or maybe just I don’t want this. I asked her if she could step outside the whole narrative and history attached this situation and just feel the direct, bodily-felt experience of I don’t want to be treated this way. And indeed, Mary could feel this, without any help from her mind. It was right there in her heart and gut. It was true now.
I then asked her if she could remember this I don’t want this, I don’t want to be treated like this feeling in the moments when she felt herself putting on the Teflon suit. This refuge of self and self-compassion could then be home for Mary, a destination she could go instead of having to step outside herself and into the pretender. Her self-caring truth was safe ground for her in the present moment when the unkindness was happening, and this is what she had been missing.
What we need in these situations, when we’re really struggling, is self-compassion. We don’t need more judgment or more strategies for figuring out the situation. Yes, we need to address the other person and their behavior, and yes, we need to decide if and how we can live with this situation if it’s not going to change. But in the moments of triage when we’re really suffering, what we need most is our own loving kindness. In offering Mary permission to let herself have the experience she was having and also, pointing her towards her own self-loving experience of I don’t want this, Mary was able to return home to herself and to her ground. While the situation on the outside might have been the same, her inner world had profoundly transformed. She had somewhere to go inside herself now, a refuge in which she could live in the truth in the midst of whatever was happening in her outer environment.
Furthermore, I knew that Mary’s body-knowing of I don’t want to be treated this way would prove to be a far more powerful guide and motivator than anything our minds could come up with. I trust and know (from experience) that when we let things be as they are, feel what we’re actually feeling, without judgment, and simultaneously allow ourselves to feel the heart’s authentic I don’t want this, the process itself reveals our next right step; we are led to know what we need to know. How and why this happens remains for me the great mystery and magic that is this thing we call truth.
Tips for Dealing with Passive Aggression
- Don’t fall into guilt.The passive-aggressive character will play the part of the victim. Be mindful not to step into the role of the perpetrator, the bad one. Remind yourself, you are not that.
- Give yourself permission to have the experience you’re having, to be affected by their behavior. When we’re around aggression (regardless of whether it’s direct or buried), we feel it. Don’t judge yourself for having a response; it comes with being human!
- Tap into self-compassion.Feel your heart’s genuine I don’t want to be treated this way. Drop into this feeling on your own, and when their behavior is unkind. It’s your refuge; let it guide you in how to respond.