Passive-Aggressive Behavior After a Breakup

Reader’s Question

I recently dated a guy for two months and I broke up with him because he was being rather cold to me, emotionally. I thought he just wasn’t into me so I called it off, but he was rather upset about it, although he took it well. After the break up, we continued to talk. We had a disagreement over morality issues — he thought it’s okay to have a purely physical relationship with no emotions attached and I disagreed. He tried to explain to me that it was okay, as if he was trying to sell it to me, but I couldn’t see the morals. So he thought I thought he was trashy even though I tried to explain to him that I don’t. I know I came off as being a bit condescending and judgmental but I just couldn’t understand how he can just give himself away so easily as a void filler, as he said, “sometimes, it’s nice to fill a void.” He was angry with me and I was also angry with him and I said something hurtful but I tried to make things right. I asked him not to be upset anymore and I apologized for seeming so judgmental of him and that he is a valuable person and I still respect him as I always have. Some weeks passed, and strange things happened afterwards.

We were supposed to meet so he can give back my stuff. They aren’t important but since we broke up, it would be appropriate for him to return it. I texted mid-day and he texted he was sleeping. Hours later, I texted again. He goes “I’m sorry for the inconvenience. I’ll drop it off.” And I don’t hear from him for a whole week. During this week, I texted him a few times but he didn’t reply. I thought he was mad at me. And a week later, he leaves me some messages over instant messenger “I’ve been having phone problems. I figured you might be trying to reach me, but you haven’t written me an email. So drop me a message if you need anything.” Isn’t it obvious that I need my stuff back? How could he have forgotten? So I wrote an email, “I thought you didn’t want to talk to me or something.” No response.

Another week later, I see him online and I said hi. He replied, like nothing’s wrong. Asked how school was going for me, etc. I didn’t say much. He said “Oh yeah, I need to give back your things.” I said I didn’t really need it (it’s just a cooking pot) and he can just keep it. He goes “It’s not as if I don’t need it…but since you asked for it back, I’ll give it back.” So I said okay. He asked when I was free and we set up a time to call and meet up. He missed the appointment, and texted much later that evening, “I fell asleep when I came back home to get the pot. Are you busy right now?” Well I was out at that time and came back later to let him know I was back. No answer. I texted “I don’t want to deal with this.”

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Next day, I was irritated and called him. Again, he doesn’t pick up. Texts me later and goes “I’m a bit busy. I’ll call you right back.” And he doesn’t call. Next day, I texted “I don’t know why you’re being so inconsiderate and irresponsible with this. You’re off my contact lists now. Don’t contact me ever again.” I didn’t want to deal with him being so unpunctual about matters. If he doesn’t want to see me, why can’t he just get this over with so I won’t be on his case about it? Why is he doing this?

Psychologist’s Reply

This is most likely passive-aggressive behavior. People can show anger and hostility in several ways. The most obvious way involves aggressive behavior — the direct confrontation that involves loud voice, nasty names, sometimes threats, and even physical posturing and violence. In passive-aggressive behavior, our hostility and anger is expressed in what seems to be more appropriate behaviors such as being resistive, playing games, procrastination, purposeful inefficency, stubbornness, and purposeful obstruction.

As an example, you ask three friends to loan you $100.00. Friend #1 is upfront and honest and tells you he doesn’t have the money at this time. His business approach leaves the door open to further contact and continues the relationship. Friend #2 becomes visibly angry and yells at you for asking him or her. You quickly learn not to ask anything of him/her again. Friend #3 tells you to wait and they’ll see if they can come up with the money. They don’t call back. You contact them and they tell you their bank account number isn’t working right now. Later they tell you that their dog has worms and they spent the money but yadda yadda. You never get the money from this person, you become upset with their stalling and dishonesty, yet they’re not being hostile or socially inappropriate. Passive-Aggressive folks basically punish you for confronting them (breaking up, not accepting their values, etc.) but it’s with a smile and a good excuse.

As a victim of passive-aggressive behavior, we do feel miserable. Their behavior doesn’t make sense to us. They keep you hanging on with a variety of excuses. Even worse, when confronted with their behavior — they suddenly assume a victim stance as though you are being unreasonable or hostile. When you confront a passive-aggressive individual, their response is often “What did I do?”

My theory: While it looks like he took the breakup well — he actually didn’t. He retains anger, bitterness, and resentment that is now coming your way in the form of passive-aggressive behavior. He is tormenting you for not tolerating his behavior. You may consider giving up the cooking pot as it provides a “ticket” for him, allowing him to continue to play passive-aggressive games under the excuse that it’s about the cooking pot.

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