Feeling Crazy with Boyfriend Who Seems “Passive-Aggressive”

Reader’s Question

I think your column is great, and I would appreciate any feedback if you get a chance to answer.

My partner is driving me nuts. I’m not trusting him and I feel like he’s being passive-aggressive.

When we first met, he broke up with someone he’d had an affair with. When he told me this, I couldn’t work out how he could have had an affair. He said the woman had been in a bad marriage, as if he was doing her a favor by being with her. He also wanted to keep texting her, but I said no to that because I didn’t feel comfortable with it. That should probably have been an early sign, but at the time I thought maybe it was okay.

But now other things have come to light. He’s not friends with the partner he split up with years ago but has paid her to do his cleaning and gardening (they split because she cheated). I said I wasn’t comfortable with that because she has a key to his house, re-does his garden, does his decorating. When I said I wasn’t comfortable, he said he’d much rather pay her than someone else because the money he paid her went to their kids. So I kept thinking I was over-reacting.

Then I found out they were actually still married. I had already asked him about her being his ex-wife when we first met and he’d joked about it then and said of course she was his ex. But six months later he told me they were still married and that he’d just never gotten around to divorcing her because he was depressed and he thought she’d do it. But he also made out I hadn’t really asked properly. I started doubting myself, even though I told him I think he knew what I meant when I asked “are you divorced?”. He now says he’ll get a divorce and she won’t do his cleaning, but I’m thinking this won’t work because I can’t trust him.

He told me I was working myself up over nothing, that he would have already gotten divorced but he just found it hard because of the kids and kept his “ex” as a house cleaner because he wanted to make sure the kids had enough.

I’m finding it hard to let go of the feeling he’ll never change. I feel as if I’m the one constantly saying it’s not right to do certain things whereas he says I’m just always finding something else wrong.

Psychologist’s Reply

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You have every reason to be mistrusting. You also have good reason to feel “nuts.” Dealing with a person like you describe can make any conscientious person be troubled by behaviors they witness yet doubt themselves when they confront it. That’s what makes the tactics such people use so effective as manipulation tools. And there’s absolutely nothing “passive” about the use of such maneuvers. But the behaviors covert-aggressive folks use to first charm and then hoodwink others are hard to see for what they truly are. And the character of the folks who use those behaviors is also hard to understand, especially when you don’t have a good framework with which to comprehend it. That’s exactly why I wrote In Sheep’s Clothing and why, after almost 16 years, it’s still a bestseller and regarded by many as the definitive work on such things.

My best suggestion: trust your gut and don’t allow yourself to be be carried by the tactics into a sea of self-doubt. He probably is just exactly as you sense he is. And unless you yearn for a life of heartache, let your intuition guide you elsewhere.

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