Passive? Aggressive? Or Passive-Aggressive? Rather Use Assertive Communication

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Reader’s Question

On my anniversary with my boyfriend he had to work in another city. I was upset about that and I acted angry all day to his phone messages. At night I went to the movies with my sister, and while I was watching the movie he called me to tell me he could come sooner than expected. I told him I was at the movies. When he arrived at the mall he wrote a message from another phone (because his battery ran out) telling me that he was waiting outside. I continued watching to the end of the movie and 15 minutes later he entered the cinema, mad at me for not having gone to see him. My sister asked me to leave the theater, and he yelled at me that I did wrong by not leaving when he was outside, alone, tired, without cellular contact and without the house keys. Since that day my sister, who saw what happened, has been telling me he is a dominant and abusive person and I’m going to suffer if I continue this relationship.

I am very confused and want to know your opinion about the situation.

Psychologist’s Reply

Without knowing exactly what he said and the history of the interactions between you, I could not give an opinion about whether your boyfriend is an abusive person. You did not mention any physical aggression during the encounter, so I will assume that physical abuse is not what you are asking about.

You are asking an important question, which is: what is the difference between an expression of anger or even outrage, and abusive behavior? According to the Working Group on Intimate Partner Abuse and Relationship Violence, abuse “usually includes an ongoing pattern of behavior, attitudes, and beliefs in which a partner in an intimate relationship attempts to maintain power and control over the other through the use of psychological, physical and/or sexual coercion. Abuse usually produces fear and trauma in those being victimized, whereas isolated aggressive acts may not.” Psychological abuse can include “degradation, humiliation, intimidation and threats of harm; intense criticizing, insulting, belittling, ridiculing, and name calling that have the effect of making a person believe they are not worthwhile and keep them under the control of the abuser.” As I consider your situation, I would highlight the aspect of these definitions that mentions the effect of the abuse on the abused partner. If this relationship has created lower self-esteem, fear, a sense of walking on eggshells, or a sense that you will not be able to find anyone else due to your flaws, you may be in an abusive relationship. On the other hand, a high-conflict relationship, while it may be unpleasant, is not necessarily abusive.

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It sounds like your sister had a strong reaction to the way your boyfriend behaved. If her opinion is one that you value and take seriously, it might be worth talking more with her about her concerns.

What you have described is a conflict within your relationship in which you and your boyfriend chose two different ways to express anger. You mentioned that you were upset that your boyfriend was unavailable on your anniversary. It seems as though your decision to stay in the movie while he waited for you was perhaps an indirect, or passive-aggressive, expression of how upset you were. I could be wrong about that; maybe you would have chosen to have him wait even on a day you were not upset. Your boyfriend, on the other hand, if I understand correctly, came into the theater yelling and engaging in an aggressive expression of anger. You might both start paying attention to your style of expressing negative emotions, such as anger or sadness. Something to aspire to might be to express yourselves directly and assertively. Assertive communication means that you directly, firmly, but neutrally state your feelings.

When we are angry, the temptation can be to suppress our feelings and/or keep them to ourselves (passive); express the feelings indirectly through our behavior without admitting to them (passive-aggressive); or express them in a way that is insulting, ugly, or blaming of someone else (aggressive). In the situation you described, an assertive statement from you could have been, “I appreciate that you came to the movies, but I am still upset and will not be coming out until the end. If you do not want to wait another 30 minutes, you should go home.” This statement clearly states your feelings and leaves no guesswork for your boyfriend, but does not use blaming statements (e.g. “you don’t care at all about our anniversary!”) or actions (e.g., making him wait outside) to make your point. Assertive statements such as these can move a conflict forward toward resolution rather than escalating the conflict further.

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