Can a Passive Aggressive Person Change His Heart?

passive aggressive test

Most frequently, I receive letters from women readers asking the most urgent question, that shapes the relationship future: Can a passive aggressive person change his heart?

It is really painful not to have ready a fast, reassuring answer, like: “Yes, he can change his heart, and this is the way to get there….”  In all honesty, there is not such an answer.

Let me recover the basic facts of the passive aggressive defense in life: 

We have a person who survived a rough childhood, lacking the basic healthy connection with a caretaker as to develop a basic trust in other human beings. (Just ask about how his family treated him while growing up). People which grew up in an environment producing insecure or avoidant attachment styles never trust other people, so intimacy becomes a chore they try to avoid….even when there is no conflict.

The closer you get to him, the more he feels vulnerable and afraid of being seduced into a bonding experience that, according to his previous experience, only can end up with him being rejected or dropped afterwards. Feelings of neglect and abandonment are the two biggest concerns of people with Avoidant or insecure attachment. And what happens when they are inundated by those feelings? they can escape, into being in protective silence for weeks, or fight, creating weird reasons to fight with you, never declaring the real reason behind the fight…

Perhaps getting to know the triggers of those feelings can help you understand the scary world where the PA person lives:

  • If you need to stay late for work;
  • Or need to change or cancel plans suddenly;
  • Or you are spending a lot of time with other people, perhaps friends or relatives. Greeting others when you get back home, before greeting him;
  • Even being with your own children can be interpreted as abandonment!
  • Doing chores at the home without connecting verbally to him…

Why do I need to share all this information with you? because a change of heart assumes exactly the opposite attitude: being ready to appreciate your love for the children; respecting your work demands, etc…are the indicators of a healthy approach to the relationship. If you find yourself confused, please, think that to change his heart he needs to do battle with his old feelings of impending abandonment…and convince himself that you are constantly near him.

Perhaps all what you can see is his fast and angry response to hidden feelings of abandonment…or the stony silence that hides the deep fear that you will reject him. Trust me, the old anxious attachment is below, prompting in him all kinds of negative feelings that are always inundating his perception of the situation. 

In short, if there is a lesson in this piece of information, is perhaps that to get a change of heart (from fear of abandonment to feeling secure in this relationship) you play a huge part. How so? by providing constantly the information about you being there for the long haul; telling him about impending change with a bit of time, so he can see that there is no abandonment, and in general, managing his environment as to send the message that this relation ship is different and better than what he had growing up. 

Perhaps this is not exactly the answer my readers wanted…a magical solution that makes him change without involving yourself in the process? well, that is magic! and here magic consists only in knowing the behavioral  deep reasons, not getting angry with him, but understanding the roots in his old pain, and providing different stimulation for promoting his changes. 

Surviving a Passive Aggressive Marriage!
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About Nora Femenia

Nora Femenia, Ph.D, is the CEO of Creative Conflict Resolutions and the author of the book: "The Art of Living with a Passive Aggressive Husband," a field guide for women that have to deal with passive aggression in their partners. Nora also posts regularly on her blog Creative Conflicts. Visit her blog and join the community to discuss issues related to Conflicts, Relationships and receive also Free her book “Breaking Free From The Silent Treatment.” You are warmly welcomed here, because we care for your happiness!

  • janet

    Thank you Nora for this summary of “pa” behaviour….I prayed for a long time for my husband’s heart to soften and also to take responsibility for his behaviours( the gift I gave him one year when he came for his birthday was “taking responsibility for his behaviours”…he thanked me for that but of course you know they only pay you lip service….they smile sweetly but then go about doing what they want)….while there were glimmers at time…at one time after he had been gone for a period of time he spoke in therapy of building a bridge to me and my daughter…..I told him however that he needed to build the bridge with our daughter….that never happened…as we know “intimacy is hard enough but if I wasn’t going to be there providing the support it would all have fallen on his shoulders…..he wanted his cake and eat it too…in the end it didn’t succeed….because they lost so much growing up they feel that they will once again be losers within the marriage with the focus not on them but the children….I remember at times feeling guilty for placing so much attention on our daughter….thinking if I hadn’t that perhaps our marriage might have succeeded….how sad is that and now I’m glad I provided for her needs….one less person in the world who is not messed up. I do realize now he set the conditions up so that I would reject him rather than the reverse…he needed to be the “victim” as he was in his early life….to be able to sit back saying “I don’t know what I did wrong…I’m the innocent bystander”….at the same we know these men “harden” their hearts towards us which indicates that their “life map” on forgiveness is not healthy….to accept responsibility for them brings up shame and blame…it’s a death to their psyches to accept this…..so I wish the women on this site all the best as it’s a tough road to walk with these men…it results in you feeling less about yourself and after 4 1/2 years I am better for having removed myself from the marriage….I am a whole person now…sure I have my disappointments but I am now reading the book “The Forgiveness Formula”….I find it represents the “closing chapter” in all of this….but it does take time to reach this final chapter…I fought a long time for my marriage….so I know I did all I could did but he desired “freedom”….and I know it’s freedom from his “mother’s” imprint.

  • Alice T. Green

    Wow, this line hit me like a ton of bricks! “Even being with your own children can be interpreted as abandonment!” I did notice that and was upset, thinking: is he competing with his own children for attention? and he was…I could not believe that; it looked as a hideous idea, because he is the other grown up in the house, besides me? Your post makes me think that here, the only grown up is me, and I have to take care of his own postponed childhood needs?

    I prefer to ignore him when he is in this “mommy demanding” attitude, even when I know that he will punsih me with a very grown up sullen face for weeks….How did I end up in this sad place, can you tell me?

  • Nora Femenia

    Thanks Alice for taking the time to share with us….you have looked into the inner machinery that propels the passive aggressive defense forward. I know that your kids, if they perceive that dad is competing with them for attention, will feel scared and frustrated, because they need to feel that they have access to your support, unhindered. I have been promoting the metaphor that this kind of husband is having an extra child, but with the intensity of the frustration of a grown up. Perhaps you could use some of the strategies mentioned in the post above? your job is to make life easier for your family, and you will get that if you can manage somehow the needs of your husband before they escalate to a full fight. I know it is asking too much, but if you are persistent, you will find that his need diminishes along time. Good luck!

  • Linda

    This a very important question to ask. I cannot say that it is impossible for them to recover, but I will say that in all my research on this topic over the last 6 years – I have never found a success story. I found myself wishing he were an alcoholic instead, because at least they have twelve step. It helps to know that others have turned their lives around and transformed their relationships and are HAPPY! Sadly, I have never heard a woman say that she now has a loving and supportive marriage with her formerly PA husband.
    I am now 14 months into my single life, after 23 years with a PA husband. I only wish I had gotten out sooner…. I have a wonderful relationship with a man, but my eyes are open. There have been a few times that he has drifted into a PA behavior, and I have called him on it right away and let him know that I will not accept it. He straightens right up. We all do a little PA now and then….
    My ex is still unhappy and unable to make friends. At least he has to own his unhappiness and can no longer shift the blame to me. I hope he figures out a way to have a satisfying life, but I know for certain that I will never allow myself to be pulled in like that again. It was my fault that I allowed the behavior. It took so long to realize that I deserved more. I no longer try to rescue men who are socially stunted. I look carefully to see how they handle their other relationships and families.
    In all honesty I can say that leaving my marriage was good for both of us. He would never grow in the marriage, but he may choose differently now. He may treat the next one better. He might come to realize that his irrational fears are hurting him, not protecting him from being hurt. As for me, I have improved my ability to say what I want and not let things build up. I have taken time to decide what a healthy relationship is and to define clearly what I can control.
    I wish you all peace of mind as you wrestle with these hard choices.

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