Andrea Harrn Counselling Services

passive aggressive behaviour – is it intentional?

imagesI was recently asked this question by a reader:

I read your article about passive aggressive behavior and I wanted to know if this behavior is something that a person can turn on and off like a light switch or is it part of who they are? If a guy was like this with one girl is it likely he will be the same way with another girl or is he only passive aggressive with girls who push his buttons?”

Someone who is passive aggressive can for sure turn the behaviour on (like a light switch) when their buttons are pushed.   In the same way it is possible to turn the behaviour off.  However it is much harder to turn it off than on.  This is because the PA behaviour is a defence and a way of dealing with feelings when buttons are being pushed.  For a PA it is probably easier to to avoid, and sulk rather than have a conversation about their feelings.   To have a conversation might risk conflict, raised voices or even rejection.  PA behaviour is in itself a subtle form of conflict with no raised voices with the PA at some level doing the rejecting.  In order for a PA to be able to switch off the behaviour they would need to have a level of self-awareness and be able to identify which buttons are being pushed.  They would also need the confidence and ability to engage in dialogue with their partner, to be able to share thoughts, feelings, hurts and possible fears.

To be on the receiving end of PA behaviour is painful and confusing.   Not a good place to be.  You are picking up all the negative energy of your partner who cannot contain their own emotions.  PA behaviour affects women, girls, boys, men and children.  It is not unusual for both people in a relationship to be somewhat passive aggressive.  The ripple effect….

In answer to the second part.  Being passive aggressive can be defined as a trait of personality or a learnt behaviour that some people have which will arise more with certain people than others.  Where a guy (or girl) feels safe and secure in a relationship it is less likely to happen.  When you feel secure with your partner you are more able to be yourself, share your thoughts, concerns and personal history.  When you are unsure about where the relationship is going you may be more likely to hold back parts of yourself.   This often happens if you have been hurt or rejected in the past or where there is a history of abusive relationships.

We all have buttons.  What are yours?  Think about how you react when your buttons are pushed.  Buttons are highly sensitive internal feelings that are difficult to face/deal with.

A button can be:

– a criticism about something you know already exists

– a personal attack on your family or someone you love

– reference to a previous incident you were involved in

Being aware of your own buttons is a first step to managing them.  Being aware of your partners buttons gives you a good idea of the sensitive subjects to avoid, especially in arguments. Honest communication with your partner above all, is the best way to have a successful relationship and avoid all forms of aggression, be they passive or otherwise.


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3 thoughts on “passive aggressive behaviour – is it intentional?

  1. Alistair Bain

    Great piece. Thank you. One observation: if PA folk can indeed turn their behaviours on and off (which suggests agency and will), then does it make sense to talk of buttons being pushed? The latter implies lack of choice, a being-done-to rather than the more observable case: PA people know what they’re doing and can choose to behave differently – if they want to.

    1. Andrea Harrn Post author

      For the PA: understanding what upsets others can either cause the behaviour more (in order to punish) or could help them to refrain (if they want a peaceful positive relationship)

      For the person whose buttons are being pushed: Buttons are more of an immediate instinctual response to a trigger. Once people know what their own buttons are they can have more awareness when it happens and be able to manage their own emotional responses as best as possible. Thanks for your comments

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