Friday, April 23, 2010

Passive aggression or open aggression: which is best?

Perhaps, up front, the response is: neither. It depends of the circumstances.
There is a very subtle game, by which both people in a constant interaction, like in marriage, can drive each other nuts. The funny aspect is that, by being able to sustain passive aggressive behavior for a long time, a person can provoke his partner in such a way that she will be seen easily as "the most aggressive of the two."

Why? because she will be pushed to her limit, and either she used or no to show her degree of exasperation before him, now she reacts with screaming and yelling as her more appropriate response to so much passivity.

In this case passive anger commonly referred to as “passive aggressive” behavior can be just as destructive as overt anger.

Jim knew that every time he would withdraw in a discussion it would drive Alice up the wall. He knew that not following through on commitments frustrated her to the point of anger. Over and over again, his cheerful admission of broken promises pushed Alice’s hottest button.

This is a hidden, silent tug of war: the more passive Jim could be, the more out of control Alice would be. On the surface, this was a lose-lose situation, where both would be losers...but who knows Jim's internal needs?

Perhaps having an angry partner exonerated himself of the guilt for his own passivity? Kind of rationalizing: "I have to be quiet because she will escalate the fight more and more...better to be withdrawn and silent." In this way, he will be exactly causing the circumstances he is forcing Alice to react to, but in his own eyes, he will be a victim of her "bat temperament."

How can this cycle of escalating angry behavior be stopped? Since you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge the first step is getting both spouses to see and acknowledge their behaviors.

"Each time that you, Jim, withdraw into your clam and avoid doing your share of the house chores, you have to face that you are producing facts in the household that have consequences. Like Alice's frustration."

The first step is owning the frustrating behavior, and linking it with the other side's responses. Having an interactive vision of the reciprocal behaviors help to lower the emotions and helps also to focus in the interaction.

Ideally, each spouse should be able to tell himself/herself: "every time I see the other person doing X, I will not react with more withdrawal/frustration. I have other tools to restore communication and peace, like asking what happens with the other person and reviewing our mutual agreements and promises."

The point here being that both sides are responsible of keeping a healthy communication going, and of course, both are responsible of their shared tasks. Being responsible in this case means growing up to the status of adult person, able to maintain a healthy relationship.

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