Is This Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

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Reader’s Question

I have a classification question. Girl forgets keys at work and mentions to boyfriend that she forgot her keys, but she can’t go get them because she has an assignment to finish. Boy offers on more than one occasion to go pick up the keys. The girl says “no, that’s okay, I can get them later.” Boy finally decides by his own will to go and get the keys for her while she is working. Is this a form of passive-aggressive manipulation? If so, why?

Psychologist’s Reply

Although you did not specify who you believe was trying to passive-aggressively manipulate the situation (really, it could have been either), I’m guessing that you were wondering about the girl’s behavior. Did she use passive-aggression to try to manipulate the boy into getting her keys? My answer to that is: maybe.

Passive-aggressive behavior is behavior in which negative feelings, resentment and/or aggression are displayed in a passive way, like through procrastination, sullenness or stubbornness. People who use passive-aggressive behavior usually do not know how to express their emotions directly. So, let’s make the case for both the girl and boy behaving with passive-aggression.

It could be that the girl did not know how to make a direct request. Instead of just asking the boy if he would get them for her, she talks about how busy she is, how difficult not having her keys is for her right now, and so on. When he offers to get her keys, instead of graciously accepting his help, she tells him not to worry about it, that it’s too much trouble for him and she’ll do it later. Similarly, the boy could also have been behaving passive-aggressively. He hears her talk about her keys and offers to get them. After being turned down, he refuses to accept her final decision about getting them later, and goes off on his own to do what he thinks should be done.

However, it could also be that neither of them was behaving passive-aggressively. She could have just been venting about her absent-mindedness and honestly didn’t expect the boy to help her. It could be that, upon further thought, she wanted to get them herself later because she could do additional errands. The boy also could have just wanted to help the girl out, and got the keys out of the kindness of his heart.

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What makes the difference? How can we tell if either or both were trying to manipulate the situation? It depends upon the underlying emotions. If the implied messages were not about anger or resentment, then there was no passive-aggressive behavior. Given that some people are not honest about what they are truly feeling, though, it is legitimate to ask how you are supposed to know what someone is trying to tell you. The answer to that is: you aren’t supposed to know.

Effective communication is one of the cornerstones of healthy relationships. The only communication you can work on is the kind that is provided. You cannot be expected to be a mind-reader. Hence, when someone tells you not to worry about it, take them at their word. Or if someone says something nice while looking angry, tell them about the discrepancy and ask them what they truly mean. Then take them at their word and go from there. Eventually they will realize that they will not get what they want without telling you directly. They may still choose to obscure their true intent but that is their choice. Hopefully most people will choose to take the guesswork out of relationships and go with what people say. If that is the case, then manipulation will be much harder to accomplish and the relationship will be the better for it.

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