Two To Tango? The Dance of A Passive Aggressive Husband And His Victim Wife

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Living with a passive aggressive man is very frustrating because he doesn't follow through on his agreements and promises. He takes on projects but doesn't finish them, then tends to feel put upon or hostile if someone else tries to finish them. His wife perceives that he ignores his responsibilities and agreements on purpose, and this only augments her frustration.

Does he ever see her mounting frustration? Of course, not.  Even when she presents her evidence, he twists and changes it in order to support his own logic. What is the purpose of this warped communication, apparently designed to frustrate his spouse’s needs and expectations?

Human needs, specially the need for love and connection are what motivate people to get together and bond with each other in relationships.  When it works, it confirms self esteem and identity, and we are very happy for it. How come he thinks he can get satisfaction to his search for love and connection by engaging in behaviors the other person considers hostile? The reason is this: neither can focus on his/her own needs for love and connection because they are carrying from the past their own relationship patterns, learned while attached to their mothers....He can’t connect with her feelings, because


He needs first to feel in control of the relationship!

In his childhood, he developed a toxic image of what a relationship should be and now he is trying to duplicate that kind of relationship model, this time with another grown up, with himself playing the controlling and domineering role. He then frustrates her a little bit every day, building up in her a pattern of irritation so high that she expresses the anger that he has been repressing all his life. She can’t connect with her own need for love because

She needs first to feel needed!

Perhaps she grew up in a home where she was relegated and not appreciated…always in a little corner. When she wanted to be seen, someone stole the focus off her. She has been dreaming of finding someone who would change under the shower of love she can send him and recognize her for how wonderful she is.

It is a warped relationship with simultaneous attraction and rejection between both partners.   The more he feels threatened and insecure and withdraws, the more she pushes or clings to him. When she feels rejected, she pulls away and only then does he show her love and she becomes angry. When she gets angry, then he withdraws even more and the unresolved conflict magnifies. It’s a seesaw of failed search for connection and withdrawal, when one searches for connection, the other withdraws.

Why does she need to be needed by somebody who can frustrate her? She keeps dreaming that with enough love and patience he will change and be loving to her. Even when he sets up experiences to get her to reject or deprive him (so then he can blame her for his dissatisfaction), she prefers to play along. Her choice is to keep waiting on him. The alternative is to be lonely again, and that is something she rejects; she is not able yet to be happy with her own company. To stop her fear of being alone, she needs to accept and love herself.  Accepting his behavior and her unwillingness to leave can take her from feeling lonely and depressed in this marriage, to angry at him.

Why Is This Seesaw Between Anger And Depression Functional To Her? For how long does she need him as a frustration provider? How prone is she to repeat the patterns of her childhood, and invite others to reject her? Is permanent frustration of her emotional needs her childhood script, causing her to need someone like her husband to frustrate her here and now?
In repetitive scenes from this script, you can see her self-esteem reduced to zero as her frustration and anger turn to insecurity and rage when she feels again unable to attract a direct commitment from a loving man.  However, things can change for her and be different from her childhood experiences. Raising her self-esteem would stop this cycle and make her less needy and more worthy of respect and appreciation by any partner.

Now, how can she give up the old script, recover herself and be happier by finding nurturing of her own needs? Perhaps getting a respite, taking a step back and reevaluating the interaction pattern both are so used to....what else can you say or do differently? In what ways can you talk so as to be listened, really listened to? Perhaps having a conflict coach would help? Then, schedule your complimentary session at this link.

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  1. I am living this also. Mine is a marriage counselor besides. I think he was trying to find answers for his own problems by choosing this profession. He hasn’t found them. He became this way after 25 years of marriage. We are now married 52 years. He has few friends, but he doesn’t open up to anyone. He is not close to our children or families. People think he is a nice, quiet professional. I just live my life and hope that I live long enough to be free someday.

  2. Sometimes we are so scared and doubtful sbout ourselves,we dont trust our abilities and think that we cannot live on our own.

  3. There are no victims in this dance. When we see these difficult behaviors we have a responsibility to “ourselves” to set ourselves free. There is no changing these people if they are not doing it willingly. As women we need to address our codependency to understand why we have such low standards for the way we allow ourselves to be treated. Self preservation is the first law of nature. Take control of your own happiness.

  4. Jacqui O'Halloran says

    Hi kelly,
    Maybe our husbands came from the same dysfunctional, screwed up clan!

  5. Jacqui O'Halloran says

    Thank you for your reply, much appreciated. Unfortunately, nothing I can do will make a difference, I have been trying for 18 years and all I have received is emotional abuse from him, he is too locked in to himself, with absolutely no regard for anyone else. The fact that he has many narcissistic traits does him no favours either. I have filed for a divorce today and need to look after myself from now on and leave him to wallow in his own self pity.

  6. Jacqui,
    your husband is an emotional cripple. Whatever mention you do of the lack of expressions of love between his family and himself, will be rejected. Why? Because he doesn’t want you to see the degree of his damage. It means that he was totally rejected, because he was not even good enough to be his father’s boy….and so he is in the same batch as the mousy females of his family. Is like you would accuse him of being castrated!
    Attachments, when we had bad ones, like the avoidant or rejecting ones, leave scars for life. At his age, if he doesn’t want to own his wounds and get help, nothing you can do will make him do it.
    Perhaps you can show some empathy and say: “If I were you, and my family had been so cold to me, I would be for ever insecure and anxious about my own worth.” Say that in a very low voice, almost whispering, and take his hand….you are the only person in the world who can touch the crippled child inside him and show some understanding.

    This is as far as I can go…..thanks for writing, and let me know if this approach is acceptable to you.

  7. Jacqui O'Halloran says

    Hi Nora,
    Please could you help me on this one? My husband is 58 and has two younger sisters, one 5 years younger, the other 7 years younger. His father was very aggressive and ruled his family. His mother was a mouse and never stood up to her husband, more importantly she never stood up for her children when he shouted at them.

    My husband has admitted many times that his mother never showed him any love as a child, no kisses, cuddles etc. As an adult she barely acknowledges him ie. she forgets his birthday and christmas and doesn’t send him a card or phone him unless she wants something from him. The first tme I met her, she hadn’t seen my husband in over 2 years as she lived in Ireland. When she arrived at the front door and he opened it, she walked straight past him and gabbled on about the weather! I was gobsmacked! If it were my mother she would have crushed me half to death in an effort the hug me as tight as possible!

    Both his sisters spent years affected by theur upbringing and eventually confronted their parents to get answers – I believe they never got to hear what they wanted.
    My husband has never confronted either of them.

    When I suggested that his PA behaviour may be linked to his childhood, he went nuts and said he had a fabulous upbringing and wonderful loving parents!

    My question is, why is he protecting his mother when she STILL continues to hurt him by her neglect and her “forgetfulness”?

    I’m totally lost for an answer!

  8. I could have written this.

  9. I believe another way these type of men protect is to say “I’m right, I’m good”….they have been saying it their entire life…as children all that was around them “felt” bad/wrong….as children they had to build defenses in order that they didn’t feel “wrong/bad”…therefore they have run this dialogue in their mind since they were children….so as the women in their life we are “wrong/bad”….that is their 5 year old retaliating but they are asleep to this insight…they live lives of quiet desperation that they would never admit to….a life of indifference so they don’t have to experience any reactions but as a result they don’t experience “joy” either….they don’t “feel” people’s hugs and they don’t resonate to what people “feel” so they remain “insensitive” to others(us) requiring emotional support…..when my furnace began breaking down last fall I had a “girl” moment…rare….and emailed him….didn’t hear back….wrote again and the response was “just because I didn’t write back doesn’t mean I don’t have compassion for you…it’s just that and get this ladies “words aren’t important”….there is their wound….they had to remove themselves from words as children as others words(mother) really hurt as there was no love or compassion in them….to them this is natural….I wrote him back letting him know that “words” have “value”….but we can’t change them until something shows up in their life to motivate them to change….they see us as “over-reactive” and “over-sensitive”….they are very “black/white” men…one is either a winner or a loser….that’s what they grew up learning I believe… they are “in/out” …the idea of compromising with another person pushes all their buttons where from their history they will “lose”…..

  10. In regards to your 2nd paragraph above; as I read what you wrote…

    “Well, after looking at the first years’ model of the world produced by his first attachment with mother, what I can say is that this behavior IS THE ONLY ONE HE HAS. Let me be clear with this? You can answer: Oh, no, he talks with his friends….or family, etc. But, you have to listen to those conversations to see that those words are empty; they don’t send any connection message, any feelings…it is only talking as to keep the conversation going…about the weather.!”
    …I have said no less than 50 times to friends and family, “What you get (from him) is exactly what I get. Nothing more, nothing less”. What I meant by that was there is no depth with ANY relationship he has. It is superficial with everyone, including his wife of 25 years. I know him really no better than anyone else. I may know “about” him and his issues, but I don’t know “him” because he won’t allow anyone to know him. Sometimes I’m convinced there really is no “him” to know, and he is as under-developed as he could be. Anytime I have attempted to delve deep into the person inside, it is met with hostility, irritation and avoidance. It has never, ever been reciprocated. NEVER. No interest at all in knowing people deeply.

  11. I can completely relate to your story; the endless, delusional, manipulative contradictions. For instance, H made the statement the other night about the relationship we will have after our future divorce, and I quote, “We won’t date. You know that. Neither one of us wants to start over and go through all that dating bs. We’ll see a lot of each other”. I just sat there in shock. He is the last person I will be spending “lots of time with”. I’ve already done that. Actually I spent most of my time alone waiting for him, asking for him, complaining that he was always unavailble, physically and emotionally, etc. I don’t want anymore of that, ever. He also says, when I comment about the fact that I will be leaving as soon as the youngest finishes school, “You don’t have a set time you have to leave. In fact, you don’t have to leave at all.” I mean it is a crazy, disjointed world he lives in. He doesn’t want to spend 5 minutes with me, has NEVER once reached out emotionally to me in 25 years, has no interest in having sex, a vacation together, even watch a tv show together, and the words out of his mouth are that I never have to leave. It is utterly crazy!

    I frequently get this kind of discombobulated response, or when confronting him on something, 99 out a 100 times he will ignore my comment, question, request, etc if at all possible. When we do go head to head and I force him to face what I’ve said, it usually becomes very ugly and the desperation he has to escape my demands comes out in personal attacks. We will seperate the rest of the day and have no communication until…the following morning. ALWAYS, when he sees me, he will go out of his way, with a sugary-sweet voice and demeanor to say, “Morning____!” If I don’t respond in kind, he will persue me with another fake, PA comment or repeat his cheery “Good morning!!”. It is infuriating!!!!!!
    As far as requests go, for years it has been a policy of whatever I ask for must wait for hell to feeze over to be received. This especially true of anything having to do with emotions, feelings, emotional intimacy, communication. He seems to really enjoy denying me of my needs. And if it is something physical, like a my idea to o to dinner at a particular place, or somewhere for the weekend, the minute I tell him about what I want to do, I have learned to let it go and forget about it. If pushed, he will commit to go and make just enough plans to stifle me. But the story is far from over because it is now put into his “weapons” file and used against me as punishment through denial, lateness, an arguement about it, changing it to please him, etc. I no longer express any desire to go or do anything.
    We no longer share a bedroom, and I live upstairs and he lives downstairs, so we usually have little interaction anymore except for in the morning, and dinner at night with our kids.

  12. I have lived this lonely, frustrating life for 25 years now. We have both agreed to divorce within the next 2 yrs and let our youngest finish school. Since this decision has been made, the PA behavior has been put into overdrive. He is the poster child for PA, and the relationship with his iceberg mother is the glaringly obvious source of his PA. However, he refuses to accept his behavior, the damage his mother has done and what the end result has been on our marriage. I have nothing left to give. Completely empty. I look so forward to the day that I can escape this nightmare of a marriage and never look back. I have been the constant object of his un-acknowledged longing, hatred, hurt, rejection, etc feelings he accumulated as a baby and child towards his mother, and at this point I am in self preservation mode.

  13. I can imagine that this difference is due to the fact that we finally can identify with our mothers (cold or warm) and understand/forgive them for doing what they did to us. The boy knows he is different from the mother, and fears to be so different from them they will be rejected. In this way, they envy the sometimes free and trusting relationship between mothers and daughters, who understand each other. If he feels not accepted, recognized and loved, then it must be because he is different, and mother doesn’t like babies with a penis, like him. So they have to blame themselves for the non-love. We all make this mistake, and think that we will be loved if we change the obstacle that we present… What we don’t see is that we are not loved because of us, it is because the “love” our mothers have for us is little, or conditional, or scared or selfish…whatever we do, the love we need and dream of, will not be coming.
    Men need to feel that they cause the rejection, in such a way that they recover some sense of control over what is happening; otherwise they would feel rejected and impotent to change anything. In this way, they can tell themselves: “this X is the cause mother doesn’t accept me, but if I change X, she will…”
    Asking for love will make them rejected, so the passive aggression is a transaction between the relationship with their mothers and the rest of the world, which could eventually show to them the same conditional “love” or the rejection underneath this fragile love. Whatever way you go, you can’t win, but accepting that mother didn’t loved or appreciated them is the last thing they can accept…is too humiliating and could destroy the little self-esteem they can have and need to survive. So is best to blame themselves, while keep dreaming that mother’s love is coming as long as they blame/reject themselves.

  14. I’m following this conversation with so much love and interest….hearing the pain of the endless effort to understand what makes the man be silent. And I think I have a response for that…but is not a positive one. All your comments are based on the supposition that there is a connection (kind of “I do something, he responds”) between your actions and his silence.

    Well, after looking at the first years’ model of the world produced by his first attachment with mother, what I can say is that this behavior IS THE ONLY ONE HE HAS. Let me be clear with this? You can answer: Oh, no, he talks with his friends….or family, etc. But, you have to listen to those conversations to see that those words are empty; they don’t send any connection message, any feelings…it is only talking as to keep the conversation going…about the weather.!

    Up until this person doesn’t confronts his mental model of the world, and realizes that: “my mother being such a cold person taught me only to defend myself from the world, never to completely trust anybody, and go along making believe that I’m connected with others, but really using the words without meaning anything…” they will not realize the extreme limitations of this model. Either you play according to his rules, so he feels safe, but you die inside, or he feels anxious, stressed out and clams up or lashes out, or leaves….IT IS NOT YOU, is more your presence asking him to grow up, to be at the level that life is asking him to show; to learn, and deal with fear and connect anyhow….You are in his life as a constant reminder of the life that grown up people live; but the angry child inside them is always rejecting you, because you are inviting him to grow up!

    And growing up means leaving the model (and mommy inside it) behind, and learn to trust, to connect, to risk emotionally and to suffer and to have joy.
    IT IS NOT YOU. Please, remember this: if you were married to a blind person, his dis-capacity would be evident; He is an emotional cripple, hiding his dis-capacity with fake words, hiding even from himself this lack of emotional connection, and being burdened when you call for his loving heart.
    Here is the hard choice: if you realize that there is nothing you can do to reach his scared heart and invite him to join you, but you have to wait up until he himself decides to leave the cave and grow up, what would be your choice?

  15. I have pondered this article all morning as I was out and about….doing things for “me”…oh ya….me….anyway for women it is finding that time alone with yourself, a respite from the insanity of what you have been living in for years….I would never have come back to myself if we hadn’t separated…..wouldn’t have done therapy or read the books I have read or connected with people to help support me in this journey if it hadn’t stopped….I know who my “real” friends are….I know my therapist would say “you listen to you and don’t you abandon yourself again”…..there has to be a balance in this life….not just meeting other people’s needs but meeting our own….it’s after living with a “pa” who keeps telling you/showing you that you aren’t allowed to have needs that you fall off your “own” list… lose yourself in all of it…..”pa’s” have no idea how to compromies or meet another person in the middle… you have to self-protect if you choose to continue living with them…..we can know their issues are their issues but it’s still can be very debilitating to live with as they aren’t positive about life…essentially we have to see them as “handicapped”….and guess what life will keep showing up to teach them lessons they need to learn….emotional or physical trauma will keep presenting itself over the duration of their life to try and teach them…..but we can’t teach them….it’s hard not to want to be their therapist….to say “if you just do this and that all will be well”….of course they see this as “control”…..they have intense issues around control…..and anyone who tries they wall them out…..they essentially shut you out as their mothers shut them out….they appear to refuse to see this….perhaps men need mothers more than women do???

  16. A question I pose and to Nora….why is that it appears that women can look at their past….can look at their mothers who didn’t hear them well….acknowledege it but not have their world fall apart whereas men have this issue it appears in not being able to acknowledge that this comes from “their” mothers?? Is it simply about “control” for them or is there an desire still that “their” mothers will eventually love them and if they address this issue that the mother will pull away from them even more??

  17. I have complete empathy for what all of your are going through. We continue to run into that proverbial brick wall with these men becasue we have such an intense need to be heard. We are the perfect match with these types of “pa” men to learn this….which is why we are with them….as my therapist said “you are the perfect imago match”… it’s really about learning with these types of men. My husband and I are in the midst of a divorce while he sits in Australia now…..the only place he managed to find a job since he had a run in with his female boss a few years ago….yet another “strong and in control woman”….she too had her issues so she is not blameless but he lost his job as he lost it with her as she tried to pursue him. His being in Australia I believe helped me feel ‘safer’ to say the things I wanted…..profanity came out of my mouth that I have never used before with him….it became comical at some points as he commented that my language had become liberal and he thought it was “awesome”…..then he wrote back asking if he found a larger apartment would our daughter and mysel consider coming for a visit(at 23 she is grown and living her own life in another part of the country)….as you could well imagine I was left shaking my head….that same pattern of confusion….it was saying “you are divorcing me and you want to know if I will come for a visit”….even now I sit here shaking my head……I wanted to write back “shall we build a clubhouse now, sit around a campfire and sing kumbaya”(lol)…..that he thought we could be in the same apartment space?? That we are going to be “buds” now??? What he feels safer with me because we will get the divorce and he won’t feel the conflict of being a “husband”….so ladies until we reallllly listen to ourselves we will keep running into their brick walls….I also notice that while I asked him questions he asked me none…..there is no shared intimacy within the conversation so he is the same now as he was when he lived here….we have been separated for 3 1/2 years now….he said he had changed….of course I told him that his behaviours were just the same….then he will suddenly say in an email “I don’t see the need to change, I’m happy”….he’s a jumble of contradictions and the longer we are connected with them the more we get caught up with the insanity of their minds… every time we ask for something they find ways to outrun us(us being their moms). I even sent him the article Nora shared about 26 year old Carl….of course no response…..he told me the more I poke at him the more he will “ignore” me… there it is ladies….I am learning more via email with him than when he was here in person…..he sees it as poking as that is what his mother and all the mothers who are connected with these men did…..they want to avoid that repeated unconscious pattern… the 14 year old boy will continue to try and outrun you….why he would think I would want to share airspace with that is beyond me though…..nothing would possess me to get on a plane to Australia. He wants everything on his terms…no compromise or consideration that another person is allowed to have needs….his family thinks he is lonely and misses his family…..perhaps but it is always on “his” terms….he doesn’t understand the concept of things being “reciprocal” and he actually used that phrase… simply aren’t allowed to have needs with these types of men something he mentioned years ago to me and I thought it was odd but now that I understand passive aggressive behaviour so well I recognize where it came from. It’s strange though as they appear to set needs from their side but are never able to return that gesture and then make you feel guilty for having needs…..the twisting in the wind must end!

  18. I’ve been going through this for 12 years. No matter what I do it isn’t enough I get the silent treatment all the time. I have tried to talk to him but he just turns things around and gets mad that I am just causing trouble or I get the silent treatment. He’s fine as long as I leave him alone or he get what he wants all the time. As far as he is concerned I have no feelings I am not a person. As for sex It went from once a week to zero. He uses it as a way to punish me by witholing sex. He pushes me away if I try and has even smirked and laughed when I got upset and confused with him not wanting sex. He seems to take a total delight in not giving me what I want. He gets every thing done for him yet if something isn’t done for him right away he gets angry and then the silent treatment. I dont believe there really is anything you can do if they dont want to change its pointless.

  19. “She has been dreaming of finding someone who would change under the shower of love…”   yes, that’s me exactly.   I’m not his therapist.  He’s not changing without therapy.   And when he isn’t blocking me, he’s acting like a fourteen-year-old, running around creation and pouting if I expect him to put in some time with the family.   I need a man, not a 14yo boy.

    The other thing he does is “become overwhelmed” and visibly nervous whenever he doesn’t like a question or a request.   This gives him control because he avoids matters I bring up with a great deal of ease.   Frankly, it’s insulting to be told that even the most neutral and polite thing that comes out of my mouth is so, so very disturbing.   I’m sick of it.  I am polite, calm, assertive, and considerate.   I am not some monster.

  20. Me too, Jmbriere.  Sometimes I bring attention to the way he’s talking.  I noticed that when I share how I feel and what I need from you, that you …… (have a pity party about how you are hurt, become angry & defensive) and I feel that you have not heard me or respected me.  Many times he doesn’t even realize that he is doing it and it’s easy for me to want to withdraw and feel unloved or important. If I call him out on it and stand up for the way I feel rather than feeling that I must apologize for them it helps get the message across.  In the end he usually hears what he wants to hear and that is that I have somehow attacked him for not being enough by having expressed a need. 

  21. I pray someone has the answer to how to be listened to “effectively”.

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