Many researchers (whether of the brain, psychology or communication and conflict) will agree that when we communicate with others, we are attempting to connect with those people on some deeper emotional level.
This is true of a hurled insult as well as a warm hug.
That means that when you are fighting, say, over which way is best to punish your children for misbehavior, you are not just fighting to establish house rules. As hard as it may be to wrap your head around, your brain is also trying to renew some feeling of being connected - essentially, you are able to fight with each other because you are emotionally close enough to do so.
In that case, wouldn’t you say that an angry connection is better than the indifference and lack of connection between strangers? Which association would you rather have with your partner?
We know - you’re thinking to yourself, “What about the really serious fights?” Thinking about fighting as a means of connecting can help you here, as well. Usually, after a serious fight, you fall into despair about the future of the relationship, right? Everybody does. However, thinking of a serious fight as our brains searching for intimate connection can help us override that sense that “fighting equals division.” If you begin to think about fighting in this negative way, the relationship can suffer even more - each of you avoid raising issues that will cause conflict, inhibiting any possible growth.
Thus, a healthy relationship can sometimes be linked by anger as well as love - both are normal ways the brain seeks connection. It’s the way we’re designed to work and interact with one another.
In Hold Me Tight, Dr. Susan Johnson (a research expert on intimacy) states that it makes sense scientifically that couples fight over silly things. Beneath the content of what partners say to one another in fights, each wants to be assured of their value in relation to the other, essentially asking basic questions like, “Will you be there for me?”
What happens when one of the partners has learned to do passive aggression since childhood? It becomes a weapon of sabotage - by “defending” against and “avoiding” both anger and love, the passive aggressive person refuses to answer those questions his partner is asking. Given his inability to feel a deep connection with anyone, because of his childhood trauma, he can’t connect with others or feel others’ need for connection.
His partner can escalate the search for a positive response by continuing the fight, but the passive aggressive husband will retreat more and more until finally abandoning the interaction. He will say his partner is “full of anger” or “making all this drama,” or whatever reasons he can give himself to cover up the fact that he can’t feel any compassion for her distress; he can’t offer any assurance that he is there, and that he is connected. He will do the opposite behavior: either leave, clam up or express disgust for the other person’s needs.
Sadly there is no way to nurture the abandoned partner when this passive aggression happens. Some wives call it “the wall of silence,” referring their communal sensation of knocking at a wall without any emotional response. The perception of being let down and ignored in their need for reassurance is difficult to avoid.
Because we can see fighting as the intent to make the other person pay attention to us, and to make them answer the question, “Are you connected with me?” we can also see passive aggression as making a mockery of this intent. The husband will retreat and he will never confirm that he understands the deep need for connection motivating the confrontation; he will end up blaming the other side in her desperation as “aggressive” and “out of control.” The need of the brain to experience the security of connection will be frustrated.
Fighting is a way of making the other person pay attention to us; it is a weird form of re-connecting. If your ability to re-connect with your partner, via fighting or loving, is being thwarted by passive aggression, the very life of the relationship is being threatened. That is why, if your relationship is important and something you want to strive to keep alive, it is important that you work toward stopping passive aggression in the marriage NOW.
If you are not clear where this healing of the relationship would start, we have many resources for you to begin with:
- A Healthy Marriage Program specifically designed for the passive aggressive husband himself.
- A coaching session with Coach Nora to assess your options.
- “Recovering From Passive Aggression,” and “The Art of Living with a Passive Aggressive Husband,” two books specifically for women married to passive aggressive men.
- A Passive Aggressive Test for men to determine if they are using passive aggression in their interactions.
Don’t wait a minute longer for things to “just get better.” All relationships require effort, both on your side and his. That is why we often suggest that you take advantage of both the resources for you, and the resources for your husband.