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The Passive-Aggressive Personality

He’s kind, caring, an all-around nice guy –most of the time. Other times, you wonder about him. Doesn’t he hear you? Doesn’t he care? Is he stubborn, stupid or what?

Passive Aggressive personalityLike the time you were preparing dinner and asked him if he’d buy a quart of skim milk and a package of American cheese on his way home. He said, “Sure, no problem,” but instead brought home whole milk and Swiss cheese. You were left thinking – Hello, is anybody home? I could have sent my 10 year-old to the store with better results!

When you confront him about buying the wrong items, he becomes irritated with you. He says he forgot, doesn’t see what the big deal is and accuses you of never being satisfied with anything he does. You alternate between feeling guilty, wondering if indeed you are too finicky or demanding, and feeling frustrated that he can’t execute a simple task.

If this scenario seems familiar, it’s time to learn more about passive-aggressive personalities.

Bill appears to be a “nice” guy, both in his personal and professional relationships. If asked to do something, he typically responds, “No problem,” “I’ll get to it,” or “I’ll get back to you on this.” Yet his follow-through on these matters leaves much to be desired. Hiding his defiance under a guise of compliance, he promises anything, but then does whatever he wants.

Bill’s passive-aggressive pattern began in childhood. Not wanting to argue with his parents but wanting to get them off his back, he became well skilled in passive-aggressive strategies, such as:

“I’ll get to it in a minute, Ma.” (But never giving it a second thought.)

“I did my homework, Dad.” (In fact, he only did his math homework)

“I’m doing my homework right now.” (Works for a few minutes, then returns to his video game.)

“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of that mess in the garage.” (Never specifies when.)

“Yeah, I’ll do it.” (He yells, as he scoots out of the house to play ball.)

“That project isn’t due till next week.” (Putting off responsibilities till the last minute.)

“As soon as I finish these other things.” (Always some reason as to why now is not a good time.)

These childhood passive-aggressive behaviors have carried over to Bill’s adult life. To this day, he’s still uncomfortable with conflict and confrontation. He’s unable to negotiate a compromise or refuse someone’s request directly. Instead, his way of getting along is to agree, but then do it his way or simply not do it at all.

But, what then is the effect of passive-aggressive behavior on the other person? In a nutshell, it drives the other person nuts!

It’s frustrating to try to communicate with someone who doesn’t give you a straight answer. It’s exasperating to count on someone whom you can’t trust. The excuses and double messages invariably try your patience and trigger your anger.

If you’re involved with a passive-aggressive personality, there will be times when you’ll lose your cool. Then, he’ll probably tell you to get a grip, acting as though he had no part in any of the dissension between you. Once it reaches this stage, he may become cooperative –as you wonder, why, oh why, does it all have to be so difficult?

In your gut, you know, there has to be a better way. What can you do to change the pattern? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Recognize the pattern. Instead of just feeling guilty, angry or bewildered, label this disconcerting pattern of behavior as passive-aggressive.
  • Express your anger before you get to the rage stage. Express your feelings before they get out of hand. Stick to the facts. Explain how his action (or lack of action) affects you.
  • Call the passive-aggressive person on his behavior. If a promise has not been kept, confront him. If a response is evasive, ask him for clarification. If he can’t give you a straight answer, tell him how his behavioral style is affecting you.
  • Encourage the passive-aggressive person to express his feelings directly – even negative ones. Despite any initial discomfort, you may find it refreshing to have open and honest disputes instead of working so hard to decipher double messages and oblique communication
  • Nix the guilt. Though you may be a part of the problem, one thing is certain. You’re not the sole cause of the problem; nor, can you be the sole solution.

When in doubt as to whether to trust what the passive-aggressive person, give less importance to what’s being said, more importance to what your instincts tell you are true. Keep in mind that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

If, despite implementing these suggestions, nothing changes, it’s time to seek professional help.


Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist and success coach. She specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns. Contact her at Visit her website at 



  1. I’m reading your book, It’s About Time. Good stuff!

    I want to point out something about Passive-Aggressive personalities.
    P-A is also a useful survival tool if one is raised in a violent and or dysfunctional family.
    And by dysfunctional I mean your parents have such deep social skills deficits it’s almost like living on another planet, i.e. an alien one. Survival is the only pay-off, nothing else matters.

  2. Extremely helpful. Everyone thinks he is such a nice guy, and he is. As long as he gets to do whatever he wants, he’s very nice. There are two things that are quite difficult with a passive-aggressive “nice guy”- he wants everyone to like him, and is continually worried about what other people think. He is a coward, is afraid, as he doesn’t want to lose the sympathy of his female “friends” if he were to be in a relationship.

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