What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

How to Recognize and Respond to Passive-Aggressiveness

People who are passive-aggressive are indirectly aggressive rather than being directly aggressive. For instance, passive-aggressive behavior can appear in the form of resistance to another person's requests by procrastinating, expressing sullenness, or acting stubbornly.

Learn more about what being passive-aggressive means, the types of actions common with passive-aggressive behavior, and passive-aggressive examples. We also share how to respond when interacting with someone who exhibits passive-aggressiveness.

What Does Passive-Aggressive Mean?

Someone who is passive often lets others take control while someone who is aggressive is more confrontational or directly forceful. So, someone who is passive-aggressive exerts their control over situations in a less direct or recognizable way.

What Is Passive-Aggressiveness?

The American Psychological Association defines passive-aggressive as "behavior that is seemingly innocuous, accidental, or neutral but that indirectly displays an unconscious aggressive motive."

Passive-aggressive behavior can show up in many forms. If someone is being passive-aggressive, they might:

  • "Ghost" you, or seemingly disappear
  • Give you a backhanded compliment ("I saw you did the dishes. I was surprised.")
  • Give you the silent treatment
  • Indirectly refuse your request (not tell you no, but also not do what you've asked)
  • Make excuses rather than say what is on their mind
  • Procrastinate when you've asked them to do something
  • Respond to your requests with sarcasm or subtle digs

A passive-aggressive person might repeatedly claim that they are not mad or that they are fine—even when they are apparently furious and obviously not okay. In denying what they are feeling and refusing to be emotionally open, they shut down further communication and refuse to discuss the issue.

Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behavior can manifest itself in a number of different ways. In personal settings, for example, a passive-aggressive person might repeatedly make excuses to avoid certain people as a way of expressing their dislike or anger toward those individuals.

An example of passive-aggressive behavior in a marriage would be asking your spouse to empty the dishwasher, having them tell you they will, then never doing it or doing it at the last minute. Or they may respond with a sarcastic comment such as, "Why yes, I'd love to empty the dishwasher for you."

If someone is being passive-aggressive at work, they may be sarcastic with co-workers or not finish their work on time. Another example of work-related passive-aggressive behavior is withholding important information as if punishing the team by not giving them the data needed to move forward.

Effects of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

When someone is passive-aggressive, it can negatively affect their relationships. Since they don't openly voice their feelings, the people they interact with may not understand why they're getting the silent treatment or why their requests are being ignored. This creates confusion about what is going on.

Over time, these behaviors can take a toll on the relationship. The passive-aggressive person's partner may start to get tired of asking several times to do something or they may start to resent the sarcastic responses. This can create a wedge.

Additionally, since the person who is being passive-aggressive doesn't open up about how they are feeling, the underlying anger or frustration is never dealt with. The situation continues to fester as opposed to resolving the issues and moving forward.

Employees who are passive-aggressive may face disciplinary action at work or even be terminated. A student who is passive-aggressive might get low marks in school due to missing or late assignments, hurting their grades and resulting in poor academic performance.

Causes of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Passive-aggressive behaviors can have negative effects on relationships in families, romances, and even in the workplace and school. So why is this often destructive behavior so common? There are a few things that can contribute to passive aggression.

  • Family upbringing: Some researchers theorize that passive-aggressive behavior can stem from being raised in an environment where the direct expression of emotions was discouraged or not allowed. As a result, people may feel that they cannot express their real feelings more openly and, instead, find ways to passively channel their anger or frustration.
  • Mental health status: Research has found a connection between depression and passive-aggressive behaviors toward oneself. It's thought that this is due to a combination of the person's attitude, how they explain negative situations (their attributional style), and how they respond to distress.
  • Situational circumstances: The situation may also have an influence on passive-aggressive behavior. If you are in a place where displays of aggression are not socially acceptable, such as at a business or family function, you might be more inclined to respond in a covert way when someone makes you angry.
  • Discomfort with confrontation: Being assertive and emotionally open is not always easy. When standing up for yourself is difficult or even scary, passive-aggression might seem like an easier way to deal with your emotions without having to confront the source of your anger.

Recap

Passive-aggressive behaviors can be a result of upbringing, mental health status, the situation, or being uncomfortable with confrontation.

How to Recognize Passive-Aggressive Behavior

If this type of behavior is often subtle, how do you know if someone is being passive-aggressive with you? Here are some signs to look for:

  • You ask them to do something and they tell you they will, but they drag their feet, never wind up doing it, or give you a sarcastic response.
  • They give you the silent treatment for no apparent reason, and when you try to talk about what's bothering them, they won't tell you how they feel.
  • They seem angry, but when you ask them what's bothering them, they say, "I'm fine" or "nothing is bothering me," when something clearly is.
  • They pout, sigh loudly, or otherwise exhibit behaviors that they are not happy—such as slamming cupboard doors—even though they don't express their unhappiness verbally.
  • They complain about situations with other people that bother them as a means to indirectly say that they're unhappy when these same situations occur with you.
  • They seem to "keep score," talking about how they do so many things for other people yet they don't get the same treatment in return.

How to Deal With Passive-Aggressive People

what is passive aggressive behavior

Verywell / Nusha Ashjaee

What can you do when confronted with a friend, co-worker, or romantic partner who regularly engages in passive aggression? The first step is to recognize the signs of such behavior. Sulking, backhanded compliments, procrastination, withdrawal, and refusal to communicate are all passive-aggressive behaviors.

When the other person begins acting in such a way, try to keep your anger in check. Instead, point out the other person's feelings in a way that is non-judgmental, yet factual. If you are dealing with a child who is clearly upset about having to do chores, for example, you might say, "You seem to be angry at me for asking you to clean your room."

Addressing behaviors without pointing fingers or assigning blame may make it easier for them to open up. It also lets them know that you recognize the passive-aggressiveness and aren't going to let it slide without talking things out.

Finally, allow the person the opportunity to work through how they are feeling. Give them the space they need to figure out their emotions and handle them accordingly.

Recognizing Your Own Passive-Aggressive Behaviors

It can sometimes be easier to recognize passive-aggressiveness in others than it is to see these behavior patterns in yourself. If you think that you might be passive-aggressive, take a step back and look at your own behavior with an impartial eye. These questions can help:

  • Do you often find yourself sulking when you are unhappy with someone?
  • Do you avoid people with whom you are upset?
  • Do you ever stop talking to people when you are angry with them?
  • Do you put off doing things as a way to punish others?
  • Do you use sarcasm to avoid engaging in meaningful conversations?

If you feel that your passive-aggressive behaviors are damaging your relationships, there are steps you can take to change how you relate to others.

  • Improve your self-awareness. Passive-aggressive actions sometimes stem from not having a good understanding of what you are feeling. Start paying attention to what is going on with you emotionally as you react to different people and situations.
  • Give yourself time to make changes. Recognizing your own behaviors is a good first step toward change, but altering your patterns and reactions can take some time. Be patient with yourself as you work to reduce your passive-aggressive responses.
  • Practice expressing yourself. Understanding your emotions and learning to express your feelings appropriately is an important step toward ending passive-aggressive behaviors. Conflict is an unavoidable part of life, but knowing how to assert your feelings effectively can result in better resolutions.

A Word From Verywell

Passive-aggressive behavior can be destructive, yet we can all respond in such ways at times. By understanding what causes passive-aggressiveness and how to deal with it, you can not only address these behaviors with people in your life but also minimize the potential damage to your own relationships.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Passive-aggressive. American Psychological Association.

  2. Greater Good Magazine. How to stop passive aggression from ruining your relationship. Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley.

  3. Schanz CG, Equit M, Schäfer SK, Michael T. Self-directed passive-aggressive behavior as an essential component of depression: findings from two cross-sectional observational studies. BMC Psychiatry. 2022;22:200. doi:10.1186/s12888-022-03850-1

Additional Reading
  • Brant A. 8 Keys to Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness. W.W. Norton & Company.

  • Richardson DS, Hammock GS. Is it aggression? Perceptions of and motivations for passive and psychological aggression. In: Forgas JP, Kruglanski AW, Williams KD, eds. The Psychology of Social Conflict and Aggression. Psychology Press.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.