In the last few years of my marriage, the dinnertime ritual went more or less like this:
I cooked and served dinner. Our arrangement was, as always, that one of us cooked and the other cleaned up. After dinner, I would go to my computer upstairs to work remotely on some things I hadn’t finished at work. At around 8 p.m., I would go downstairs to find nothing touched, the leftovers not put away, the plates not scraped or piled, and no sign of the dishwasher being loaded up.
ME: The dishes aren’t done. When are you going to do them?
HIM: (Squirming a bit in his recliner chair as he watched TV) I’m watching something.
ME: I can see that. But you haven’t started on the dishes. When are you going to do them?
HIM: You’re always nagging me. Can’t you leave me alone? I’ll get to them when my show is finished. I need to rest my stomach after I eat.
The conversation would go on in this vein for a while until I got hot under the collar. Then I would, with a great deal of clattering and noise, start piling up the dishes and clearing the table.
HIM: (Jumping out of his chair) What are you doing? I SAID I was going to do them. Leave them and I’ll do them.
I would retreat back to my computer. At 10 p.m. when I went downstairs, he would be back in his chair, another TV show on, and no progress made on the dishes. At this point, I would do them myself and he would ignore me. Either that or I would take myself off to bed, no longer speaking to him. In the morning, I would find the sink piled with pots left to soak, the table and counters not wiped, and the dishwasher loaded but not turned on. If I pointed out the half-job he had done, I was accused of having unreasonably high standards.
Were things like that played out in your relationship? I suspect the answer for most of us is yes. Passive aggression is one of the most common issues in a marriage, and for me, one of the hardest to deal with.
Over the years, his share of household chores, parenting duties, and even our social life was eroded by his passive-aggressive tactics as I increasingly took over everything from housework to yard work, to social convening. He had great enthusiasm initially for doing things like painting a room, but would disappear on the day it was scheduled on any excuse at all, reappearing only when the task was done, and then commenting how nice it looked. Disappearing acts like this are also passive aggression.
Why do people do it? Simple, really. It works. You don’t have to confront, argue, or state your objection at being asked to do anything, which allows you to dodge dealing with conflict as well as getting out of cooperating. Avoiding conflict is generally seen as a good thing. All you have to do is be agreeable, then stall, disappear, postpone, and act aggrieved when the other person has had enough and flares up in anger.
I know a couple who have been engaging in the passive aggressive tango for nearly four decades. It seemed to work for them — until recently, that is. They have had to sell their house due to financial issues, and there was a lot that needed to be done in the way of repairs, painting, and cleaning. She worked, he was retired. They would discuss what needed to be done, and he would agree to do his share. The weeks and months dragged on as tasks he had agreed to do were never finished or not started at all. The husband is known as a nice guy who never says “no” to anyone who asks for help or a favor. Except that he is unreliable about following through on things he has promised. He has perfected the art of compliant defiance, aka passive aggressiveness.
In the end, my ex’s passive aggression was my Achilles in our marriage. It felt like I was pounding my head on a wall, over and over.
An article in Psychology Today suggests three ways to deal with it:
1. Recognise it.
I agree that this is important. Know the beast you are dealing with.
2. Make friends with your anger.
If I had said to myself: “Calm down, he’s just doing it to rattle your cage; smile and walk away,” the dishes would still not have been done until 11 p.m., if at all. I might have become more zen in my general approach to things, but more likely, I would have just held it in until one day I erupted with an anger I could no longer contain.
3. State your requests clearly.
I plead guilty to having been too vague. Instead of saying, “I need the dishes done by 7 p.m., and please make sure the counter is wiped and the pots are cleaned,” I would instead tell him only that it was his turn to do the dishes and disappear upstairs.
But my problem with this is that it would have made me the Director General, the Supervisor, even the Nagging Wife. I was trying to avoid taking on what seemed to me a dominant and bossy role in the home. I was already a manager at work and didn’t want to have to be one at home. Surely, it is not emotionally healthy in a marriage to have to spell out every single thing when you ask for assistance with something, even down to assigning a deadline. And to have to do it over and over, night after night!
Another Psychology Today article had something that I’ve seen work, at least sometimes.
State consequences. My friend’s husband, who was stalling over getting their home ready for sale, finally found a burst of energy when his wife decided that he should go and live with some of his relatives while she moved in with a friend so that at least they could rent their house out and bring in some much-needed income, since it looked like the house was never going to be readied for sale.
I wonder though if it would have mattered in my marriage and what consequences I could have stated? I did go on occasional housework strikes, which didn’t seem to matter to him at all.
So maybe the answer lies in creating a healthy marriage conflict model that our children can mirror. One that involves conflict with resolution and shows them the world doesn’t end if their parents argue.
My children are grownups now. One of the things I really hope for them is that they can avoid using the passive aggressive tactics that they witnessed in their parents’ marriage. I try not to be an interfering mother to my adult children, but I might just feel the need to speak up if see my old nemesis “compliant defiance” making an appearance in their relationships.
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