How fine is ‘I am fine’?

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How fine is ‘I am fine’?

Sunday, 25 July 2021 | Nidhi Upadhyay

How fine is ‘I am fine’?

Identifying a passive aggressive partner could be the first step towards curbing the hostility growing between you and your partner, writes Nidhi Upadhyay

We all use ‘I am fine’ as the most powerful means to avoid any potentially costly confrontations, be it with a spouse, with in-laws or at work. But what if your colleague at work agrees with your constructive feedback in the meeting to avoid confrontation and later forgets to copy you in an important email? What if your usually punctual spouse doesn’t show up on time for a dinner date simply because he or she disagreed with your choice of restaurant? And what if you have noticed a pattern in this behaviour but every time you try to bring it up with your spouse you are dismissed for reading too much between the lines? 

While developing the characters for That Night, I accidentally stumbled upon an interesting article about passive aggression in a marriage and how sometimes what might appear like a difference of opinion on the surface could be a classical setup for passive aggressive relationship. Although the partner exhibiting such behaviour in a relationship might not be a full-fledged, card carrying passive aggressive personality, but he or she could be a member of the club, subtly abusing the partner emotionally and sometimes physically too.

According to WebMD: Passive-aggressive behaviour is when you express negative feelings indirectly instead of openly talking about them. During World War II, when soldiers wouldn’t follow officers’ orders, experts described them as “passive-aggressive.” Someone who uses passive aggression may feel angry, resentful, or frustrated, but they act neutral, pleasant, or even cheerful. They then find indirect ways to show how they really feel.

We all might show a streak of passive aggression at times, however, when this repetitive sulking, backhanded compliment, withdrawal, or manipulation becomes a way of life, it can result into grave consequences in a relationship, especially in a marriage. Identifying a passive aggressive partner could be the first step towards curbing the hostility growing between you and your partner.

While each passive-aggressive spouse might operate differently, but they all have one thing in common: they avoid confrontation, and often these individuals appear and behave outwardly supportive or content, which makes it all the more difficult to spot them. However, identifying a behavioural pattern can serve as a key differentiator between a momentary angry acceptance and a passive aggression in a relationship.

Recognising Passive Aggressive behaviour

Below are some red flags that can help you identify a harmless sulking from a hostile one.

  • Disguised Verbal Hostility: ‘I’m Just Saying’ a sentence that sounds so harmless can be your partner’s coping mechanism developed over the years to express his or her angry feelings without being affirmative about it.
  • Disguised Hostile Humour: ‘Can’t You Take a Joke?’ The backhanded compliment or sarcasm could be another powerful weapon often used by a passive aggressive partner, especially in the instances when they are confronted about their demeaning act. Playing a victim card ‘that it was meant to be a joke’ is their knee-jerk reaction to avoid any uncomfortable conversations.
  • Guilt-Baiting: ‘You were taking so long to finish that call with your mom that I started the match instead.’ Aggressive passive spouses are an expert at wielding guilt as a weapon to show their disagreement or hostility. They inadvertently or skilfully manipulate and coerce you into an agreement by attacking your vulnerable spots.
  • Disguised Psychological Manipulation: ‘I think you need to go for a yoga class to manage your stress.’ Passive aggressive spouse usually have a tendency to change your perception by spinning the whole blame on you for being the inconsiderate or the short tempered one.
  • Stonewalling: Avoiding responsibility, duty, and obligations and withdrawing from a relationship is another trick up the sleeves of these individuals. It’s their way of maintaining power and control by imposing many hurdles for you to jump through.

While the phrases such as ‘I am just saying’, ‘It was a joke’ and the silent treatment are invariably part of every marriage, it should not be a breeding ground for hostility that leaves the receiving partner shattered and confused about her or his own worth in a relationship.

Unfortunately, often these tricky psychological manoeuvres take absolutely no planning on your passive-aggressive partner’s part. On the contrary, they are acting on pure instincts. Hence identifying the cause for such behaviour could work as a powerful tool to stop such manoeuvres in the track.

Possible causes for Passive-Aggressive behaviour

  • Upbringing: Voicing your strong opinion was(is) often categorised as disrespectful in most Indian households. However, a constant suppression of opinion during the formative years can impact adversely, pushing an individual to find ways to passively channel their anger or frustration.
  • Sense of powerlessness: A manipulation in a marriage can often be a side-effect of tussle of power between the partners, especially when one partner feels out of control in a situation or area where his or her spouse is enjoying success. This sense of insecurity can fuel underhanded tactics to sabotage the partner’s success and emotional wellbeing, sometimes without even realising it. This power hunger can also manifest into establishing their territories by subtle emotional and physical abuse.
  • Inability to accept their own emotion: Passive aggression is a personality disorder, and these individuals cannot approach situations, feelings, relationships or communication directly. They are often unaware of what they are doing, and when confronted, they refuse to acknowledge both the behaviour and the results.
  • Low self-esteem: The passive-aggressive partner often feels that he or she is the one at the receiving end, inadvertently playing the victim card. These individuals often operate out of a deep sense of insecurity, and they persistently feed their negative emotions to justify their actions, sometimes to the extent of demeaning the partner in an attempt to elevate themselves.
  • Buried feelings of inadequacy and injustice: Often words like ‘it’s-unfair’ can be passive aggressive person’s way of communicating that the spouse has some kind of unfair advantage over them in a relationship. It could be in career, relationships at work and family, or kids.

How to cope with passive-aggressive behaviour

Once you have identified a classical pattern of passive aggression in your spouse, the most critical step is to protect your and your partner’s emotional wellbeing. The following few steps can act as a crucial steppingstone in bringing your relationship back to a healthy track.

  • Accepting the situation: It’s painful to accept that your spouse is operating within a passive-aggressive pattern, especially, because these individuals have a tendency to manipulate your emotions by displaying sacrifices made by them in a relationship. They usually go an extra length to prove that their love for their spouse is unmatched. But if you notice a concrete pattern in the sugar-coated humiliation or purposeful withdrawal to punish you, it’s time to trust your instincts and accept the reality.
  • Identify the trigger: There is no excuse for aggression and abuse of any form in a marriage. However, knowing the reason for this aggression can help you predict the behaviour pattern of your spouse. Also, sometimes the issue can be as trivial as your spouse fearing to hurt your feelings and thus, he or she inadvertently finds an underhanded way to express his or her dislike. Understanding the triggers can minimize the potential damage to your relationships.
  • Don’t justify your spouse’s behaviour: The chances are that you have been manipulated enough in a relationship by now that you tend to find flaws in you than in the spouse who appears so nice and non-confrontational. So, train yourself to stop inwardly justifying or finding excuses for your spouse’s unacceptable behaviour.
  • Stay calm and keep you anger in control: It’s essential to keep a check on your emotions, especially when the passive aggressive spouse is acting up. If you can recognise triggers of your own anger and get a control of your reactions, you are less likely to get psychologically manipulated or gaslighted by the partner.
  • Establishing a healthy channel of communication: It is important to approach your spouse with vulnerability and empathy as passive aggressive individuals are hypersensitive and often operate from low self-esteem or sense of insecurity. You can help them by wording their angry feelings in a way that it doesn’t appear judgmental yet factual. Share with your spouse how his or her behaviour hurts you but do it without placing the blame on them.
  • Set healthy boundaries and ground rules: It hurts deeply to accept that your spouse might not have your best interest in mind always. However, it is important to set boundaries to protect yourself from any form of emotional or physical abuse. By drawing a clear list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour might help you and your partner identify the patterns you’ve been experiencing. Also, setup consequences for the next time he or she does the same thing and don’t back down if they demean you.
  • Seek help of a marriage therapist: It never hurts to seek help of a good marriage therapist. With the right approach and professional support, you can overcome passive-aggressive patterns and manipulations in a relationship to build a happier, healthier marriage together.

However, even after repetitive efforts at your end, if your partner still believes that you are at fault, in that case, you might be forced to take the tough decision of saving yourself from any form of emotional abuse. If despite all your love and patience your partner is persistently falling back to his or her old ways of demeaning you or manipulating you, or they refuse to seek help, it’s time to walk out of a relationship that is ruining you (and your partner) inside out. Because marriage should not be about turning yourself inside out, it should also be about loving yourself and defining your own worth in a relationship, and it can only happen when the boundaries about what is acceptable and not are defined clearly for both the partners. And if something unacceptable still finds its way into your marriage, time and again, despite all your efforts, perhaps walking away from a relationship would be a better idea. Because these episodes of withdrawal, aggression, abuse and manipulation are a double-edged sword that wounds you and your partner, too. So, before you fall out of love with yourself and with your partner seek help.

The writer is an engineer-turned-headhunter. That Night, published by Penguin, is her debut novel

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