Resolving Conflicts With Your Passive-Aggressive Partner

Most people are afraid of conflict in their relationships. No one really enjoys getting into arguments with their partner, right? But to some, conflict is more terrifying than to others. A passive-aggressive person is deathly afraid of conflict.

When you’re the partner of someone who behaves passive-aggressively, it can feel like you’re locked in an endless dance of anger and frustration. Over my thirty-five years as a marriage therapist, I’ve tried and tested many ways to resolve conflicts and come up with my battle-tested 7 Steps to Resolving Conflicts with your Passive-Aggressive Partner.

In order for any conflict resolution strategy to work, though, you must come to it from a place of empathy for the person who is passive-aggressive, so first let’s learn a bit about passive-aggression.

Why are passive-aggressive people so afraid of conflict?

Like most emotional responses, our attitudes about conflict begin in our childhood. If the conflict your partner saw at home as a kid involved open expressions of anger—and sometimes violence—your partner’s experience has taught them that conflict means someone will get hurt.

If, instead of outward expressions of uncontrolled anger, your partner’s family did the opposite and avoided conflict at all costs, your partner likely never learned how to fight fair. Meaning, they never learned that conflicts can be productive tools.

Healthy conflict doesn’t only resolve a dispute, but it can also build understanding and compassion in relationships.

For people who rely on passive-aggressive behavior to get their needs met, their biggest fear is that any overt disagreement will lead to the end of a relationship. Your partner is likely anxious and doesn’t want to tell you directly how they feel because of fear about how you may react. Your partner is scared that you will abandon or divorce them if they assertively express their needs and desires.

Now you know where passive-aggressiveness comes from, here are my 7 Steps to Resolving Conflicts with Your Passive-Aggressive Partner:

1. Cool down.

If you approach your partner when you’re in the throws of an angry emotional reaction, no good will come of it. Your partner will just shut down. So, take some time to breathe and to cool down, examine your anger, and gain control of your emotion before you proceed. Seriously. Take time on this step. This is where things tend to go wrong: when people try to resolve conflicts while they’re emotionally activated.

2. Discuss.

Talk to your partner about what the problem is exactly. Both of you should define the problem from your own point of view. You want to make sure the conversation you think you’re having is the conversation you’re actually having. Don’t try to read your partner’s mind.

3. Brainstorm.

Work together to come up with ideas and options for solving the problem you’re having. Make a list of all the possible solutions—include ones you don’t like, ones your partner might not like, and ones that sound crazy but could maybe, possibly work. Throw it all out there.

4. Pros and cons.

Now that you’ve got your list of ideas for solutions, go through your list and discuss the pros and cons of the various potential solutions. Talk about what you like about the ideas and what you don’t like. In the discussion you might even come up with more ideas!

5. Win-Win.

Choose the solution that works best for both parties. Have the intention that everyone wins, or at least no one loses. The win-win solution is the best one, but obviously that’s not always realistic in every conflict.

6. Execute the solution.

7. Evaluate the solution.

Come back after you’ve tried out the solution for a little while (you might want to agree on a re-evaluate date in advance). Did it work? What, if anything, might you do better next time?

There are also some really good behavioral dos and don’ts that will help make these conflict resolution steps work (or fail to work). You may want to add things to this list. Then go over this list with your partner before you start discussing the issue at hand. Think of these like the rules of the relationship road:

Do: Focus on the present or future.

Don’t: Rehash history.

Do: Use a respectful tone.

Don’t: Raise your voice or use insulting words or facial expressions.

Do: Respect your partner’s feelings and ideas.

Don’t: Criticize, attack, blame, or humiliate.

Do: Take responsibility for your own actions.

Don’t: Tell your partner what to do.

Do: Spend the time necessary to reach a resolution.

Don’t: Physically attack the other person or threaten violence

Do: Focus on solving the problem rather than being right.

Part of being human is having needs and part of the everyday reality of being in a relationship is facing the fact that your partner also has needs and sometimes those needs aren’t always in line with your needs. It is unrealistic to expect to live without some discord. In a healthy relationship conflict—when used effectively—can bring you and your partner closer together by making you more collaborative and increasing your empathy and understanding.

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