You Can’t Do Anything Right! Aggressive-Passive Conflict
Tom knew that Maria always had a temper. For the first year of their relationship, Tom seemed to be able to stay on her good side. He would listen to Maria talk about how everyone else was wrong or stupid with an intensity level that was scary. Almost no one was exempt from Maria’s wrath…waitresses, sales clerks, even friends and her parents took heat when Maria wanted to prove she was right. But slowly over time, Tom was becoming her new target. Maria could be heard scolding Tom in a loud angry parental voice about how he did not know how to clean or cook or do dishes properly. This would even happen in front of others. This came to a head when they had their first child, Melony. In Maria’s eyes Tom was inept at taking care of an infant. When Maria corrected and scolded Tom, he would get very quiet, shut down, withdraw and feel like he was a bad partner and parent by not living up to her expectations. He often felt like a small child unable to please her. Tom already struggled with poor self-esteem. Maria’s viewing him as not OK served to fuel his already poor image of himself. Tom had a difficult time admitting to himself how fearful he was of Maria’s anger and how much he tried to avoid it. It became even worse when he started to withdraw from Maria and even Melony so he wouldn’t feel so bad about himself.
Compliance is not agreement
If one partner is aggressive and the other passive, the passive partner may feel frightened, bullied and abused. Each partner will use what he or she has learned to balance the conflict and power. Whereas one partner may yell and use putdowns and threats to express disappointment with his partner, the passive partner may simply withdraw, go silent, withdraw emotionally, affectionately, physically and/or sexually to protect him or herself and fight back passively. On the surface this behavior looks like compliance, but it is often not. This can again trigger the angry person to become even angrier out of desperation and not having another way to “reach” his partner. This is NOT the passive partner’s fault or responsibility!
What are your options if you are the one who is being bullied?
When one partner gets openly angry and the other shuts down from fear, this often means different strategies are necessary for each side.
If you are the passive person, you must decide whether you want to tell your aggressive partner how unhappy you are with his/her anger directed at you.
This may be difficult since the aggressive person may not listen , become angry, minimize, control and override the feedback with defensiveness, criticism and proof of how NOT OK you are when you try to express yourself. Writing down your thoughts and feelings for your partner to read may be a better way of sharing this initially. The extent and nature of your partner’s anger, the severity of your fear, and willingness of your partner to work on changing this pattern will determine how safe it is for you to attempt to talk to your partner about this. If you can say, “I’m fearful of my partner’s anger but not at risk of being emotionally or physically abused, this is a more positive sign that you may be able to share. If your partner takes responsibility for his anger and willing to get help, this is another positive sign. If there is any fear of being hurt or you have been hurt, see below. New rules for managing conflict and communication must be established. (See Rules for Taking a TIME OUT and Ground Rules for Talking in Taking Space, p. 17)
The angry person must accept responsibility for managing his/her anger and control.
Remember that passive people are fearful and often avoid anger and conflict, so you will get nowhere, by raging, criticizing, blaming, bullying, demeaning, etc. your partner. Saying that “if your partner wouldn’t behave as such, it wouldn’t trigger your anger,” is asking your partner to take responsibility for your anger. Remember your partner is human too and wants to be right and feel good just like you. Try to imagine being in his/her shoes and being micromanaged and angrily put down for much of what you do. Actually this may have happened to the angry person growing up or in a previous relationship, and is now being acted out with his/her partner. Fulfilling relationships are based on acceptance and sharing power. You will often get further with a kinder, softer and more compassionate approach. Your partner may be starved for hearing something positive about him/herself from you. But you may have to deal with your own anger and underlying NOT OK feelings, insecurities and inner fears first. By doing this you will start to grow as a human being.
A third party may help!
When a couple comes to me with this pattern of conflict, I often hear the more passive person asking for help, sometimes in a very indirect way in reaching their more angry aggressive partner. This is not often expressed openly since the passive person remains fearful of triggering their partner’s anger. They are asking the counselor to intervene in this pattern. Depending on the severity of the pattern, the more aggressive partner may try to demonstrate to the counselor just how NOT OK his/her partner is. The passive partner must find his/her voice and the aggressive partner must start to work with their side of this pattern. Establishing some ground rules on managing conflict when this couple leaves counseling is very important so the safety of the passive partner is established.
What if the angry partner refuses to get help?
If the angry partner refuses to get help and wants to continue to blame you, you must decide to seek help on your own. With the help of a third person, counselor etc., you can get support and consider your options. With help you can begin to understand that just because your partner believes you are the NOT OK one, does not mean you are. In fact, it is often the person who must take his insecurities out on another that is really the one who is not OK!! If you believe that by seeking help from a third person will trigger even more anger and put you at danger emotionally and or physically, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Hotline at 1-800-787-3224, or your local domestic abuse hotline. These resources are very valuable and staffed by people who have experienced what you are going through.
Remember there are options and you can make changes but you may need support to do so.