It has happened to you several times: you are having a serious conversation with your husband where you describe to him some of his most hurtful passive-aggressive behaviors; using some recent and clear examples that now, just now, he can’t deny.
You are now sure that he will understand his mistake, see clearly what needs to be changed, and moreover, apologize. So you are strong, clear, and definitively setting limits to his passive aggression.
And then, just at that moment, he manages to do something to derail your intention, and gaslight you. Instead of acting like a grown-up, saying: "OK, now I see what is needed, will do my best, please, alert me when you see me forgetting to do the task I agreed today to do?" he serves you the traditional self-derogatory comment: “I suck; I’m a piece of shit,” probably using a contrived and sorrowful body posture.
Here you are, confused and befuddled...why is he answering with this in-congruent response to the previous dialogue? Your brain goes into short-circuit, and you feel that something happened to you, but is difficult to pinpoint exactly what...
When he uses this “self-deprecatory wallowing in guilt behavior,” it makes you feel that being angry at him now is like unfairly beating down a guy who already hates himself more than you ever could hate him.
So what happened is this: When he changed his own role he forced you too to change from accuser and defendant to something else: this sad phrase is exactly tailored to force you to comfort and console him!
This transformation of the interaction goes suddenly from two adults having a serious conversation (with consequences included), to be the interaction between a sweet mother consoling a child that is full of sorrow...
What you thought was an adult conversation turned into a woman-child interaction forcing you to be the dispenser of comfort again. What happened with your demand for his behavioral change? It got swiftly destroyed by his self-deprecation!
Hugo Schwyzer explains in a clear way how the "I'm a piece of shit" speech serves exactly the same purpose of derailing the conversation by gas lighting you, in his article: ‘I Suck’: How Guys Use Self-Deprecation Against You”
"These guys figure that if they say truly awful things about themselves, they'll force their partners to cease the search for legitimate discussion and turn to the more traditionally feminine role of soothing male anxiety. "I'm such an asshole, I don't know why you stay with me." (Batterers use that line a lot in the remorse stage, following an episode of abuse; here we use it for the passive aggressive cycle). It often works, particularly on a woman who wants to believe she can show the guy she loves a side of himself he has never seen. And a lot of women, torn between exasperation and compassion, give in at this point in the argument (whether it was about housework or porn or whatever) and say, "Oh Roger, you're not a bad person. I really do love and admire you." They break off the attempt to push through to the man and resolve the problem, instead moving on to comforting him. The conflict is only temporarily smoothed over, and invariably erupts again. This cycle can go on indefinitely."
If you see your husband doing this to you, and experience the shift in your resolve to clarify a situation into the impulse of consoling him, then you have been had. You need to learn the steps of this process:
“The trajectory of these arguments is always the same. The dude progresses quickly from denial to defensiveness to, finally, brutal self-deprecation. He may blame his shortcomings on your unrealistic expectations. He may blame the absence of strong male role models in his own life. Whether he means what he's saying is almost irrelevant because whether it's real or feigned, the goal is always the same:
"To get the woman who's on his case to back off and swallow her own anger.”
Hugo Schwyzer makes a good point in saying that you are right feeling deprived of your anger, confused about the final purpose of the conversation and finally being forced to play a role, (consoling him), that will again prevent him from becoming responsible for his actions and owning his own choices. In the end, your self-esteem plummets also!
If this happens to you, remember that you don't need to follow in the changing of roles. You can always say, in a calm and caring way: "I don't like it when you say terrible things about yourself. Even when you say those things here and now, and those are your feelings now, we still need a grown-up response to the issues we were dealing with. So, how do you think you can fulfill your share of the household chores, as we distributed them?"
Later, you can share with us what's the response you get when you keep calm and collected and don't enter into this very smart trap!