Passive-aggression refers to subtle, often renounced, resistance or obstructionist behaviours that have multiple causes. While this phenomenon originated as an attempt to classify covert, non-compliant behaviour, it can also be a trait, behaviour or personality disorder. The broader view of passive-aggression results from the acknowledgement of the deeper, multiple roots of this behaviour.
As behaviour, passive aggression is held to be contextual or situational. Therefore, we might all display subtle resistance or obstructionism when we feel that our goals or preferred actions are blocked, denied or invalidated. When one either deems the source of the frustration too powerful or perceive ourselves incapable of properly address our anger or frustrations in a particular context, passive-aggression might result. Passive-aggressive behaviour is not necessarily maladaptive or abnormal, but is attributed to an external stimulus.
Where passive-aggression is maladaptive or unhealthy is when it is perceived to be a trait or personality disorder. In other words, the passive-aggression is internally attributed – it is because of the person and not necessarily an external stimulus. This is where the behaviour is habitual and forms a distinct pattern. A passive-aggressive person behaves in this manner out of compulsion or inability to deal with anger, frustration or other negative emotions in a healthy, socially acceptable manner.
As isolated behaviour, passive-aggression might be a response to frustration or negative emotion from a more powerful source (such as a boss or other person in authority). Since a person might feel unable to resist that source ostentatiously or actively, subtle resistance behaviours or sullenness might be evident.
For a person who has this pattern of behaviour ( a trait or disorder), the reasons are more deep-seated. The passive-aggressive individual could have been socialized in an environment where it is unsafe or difficult to express anger or frustration. Some children are taught to suppress anger and become adults who are unable to deal with such emotions. While there is turmoil on the inside, the passive aggressive person seems calm or even pleasant to the source of their negative emotion.
In addition, passive-aggression could be the result of an inability to express anger/negative emotions in a socially acceptable manner. A person who is unaccustomed to dealing with conflict can have such an inability. Passive-aggression, as a trait or disorder, is merely a manifestation of acute repressed behaviour. In some instances, a person displaying this behaviour might not even realize it. Typically, the person might act surprised (or be genuinely surprised) when confronted with their behaviour.
One of the primary signs of passive-aggression is ambiguity. This exists because of the inherent contradictions between thoughts/actions or between one action and another. Since the passive aggressive person only complies superficially, resistance behaviours might co-exist with compliant words or actions. There is also an element of vindictiveness in this trait – a desire to hit back by transferring the negative emotion into another sphere. For example, if a husband is upset with his wife and conveniently forgets the upcoming anniversary – that is passive aggressive behaviour. Only if a person has an established pattern of this behaviour, should they be considered a subtly aggressive person.
Other significant signs of passive-aggression is blaming others and having fear of intimacy and dependency. A person who is not a master of their emotions tends to readily blame others or make external attributions. In addition, the need to feel in control is also apparent in passive-aggressive personality types.
It is important to make the distinction between passive aggressive behaviour and the passive-aggressive personality trait or disorder. This is because the behaviour could be externally attributed, while the trait or disorder is usually internal. Common signs, such as obstructionism, an uncanny lack of anger, ambiguity, vindictiveness and fears of attachment and dependency define passive-aggression. The nature of this phenomenon determines how easily a particular person can desist from being passive aggressive.