Friday, July 13, 2012

A little light culture: passive-aggressive?

Some blog I read, I can't remember which one, gave a link to a post called: Top 9 Passive-Aggressive Things To Say To Your Husband During A Road Trip.

Here is a sample:
“Are you keeping this blackened banana skin for posterity?”
“Sure, I’ll read the map. I pushed your baby out of my vagina, but I’ll read the map, too.”
I think that is meant to be funny.

Okay, I've loaded the thing by picking a piece written by someone who is obviously just a jerk. (And lest you think I am being hard on Lucy Sweet, go read the comments that she got from her readers.)

To get a grasp on why what she does is so offensive, consider a counter example. Think of behaviours that can look a lot like passive-aggressive but are really just politeness. Think, for example, of how normal it is to pretend to "ask permission" instead of criticizing someone. We say, "May I turn this burner off?' or "Are you finished with this burner?" instead of telling someone that they forgot to turn it off. This can be irritating to be sure but it's mostly irritating because when someone says something like that to me I know I made the mistake—I did forget to turn the burner off.

In real passive aggressive behaviour, it is the person making the remark who is really at fault, not the one it is directed at. Banana peels get forgotten in cars. It's something we all do. You put it aside because you are driving and twenty minutes later, when you arrive at your destination, you've had to process a whole lot of other information, so you forget about the banana peel. We all do this and it's not much effort to pick up a banana peel someone else left behind and throw it away. And we all know that others have to pick up our banana peels too. The selfish and inconsiderate thing is to disingenuously ask the other person if they meant to leave it there. Likewise, if you are bringing up the fact that you went through labour years ago because you don't want to read the map now, it's only because you know you should just read the map and help us figure out where we are.

The sorts of conflicts that inspire passive-aggressive reactions are really about expectations. You got in the car to go on vacation and, damnit, you just want things to go smoothly without us getting lost like we seem to every #$&ing time we go on vacation. But if two people get in a car to make a road trip to somewhere they don't normally go or have never gone before, the odds that they will get temporarily lost are so high as to be a near certainty.

The popular culture tends to help us on the road to conflict by making us feel self-righteous about our expectations.  Think of how many stupid jokes there are about men never asking for directions even though there is clear-cut evidence that men are, on average, better navigators than women. And think of how many jokes there are reinforcing the notion that men are selfish pigs who make constant and unreasonable requests for sex. On the flipside, think of how many jokes there are suggesting that women talk too much. And next time a guy wants to complain the woman in his life is high maintenance, he might want to stop and think how he'd feel if she stopped doing the maintenance it takes for her to be the woman he fell in love with. (And he might even think about doing a little self-maintenance of his own.)

The first step on the way to being passive aggressive is agreeing to something we don't really want to do. Our spouse describes something that they want and we don't want to do it, We say, "Yes," because we think we should. That's what starts the cycle. And then we forget, procrastinate or even sabotage our efforts to keep our promise. When our spouse complains, we react angrily because we didn't really want to do it in the first place and that makes things worse and ... .

It's easy to slip into passive-aggressive responses because while the other person's request is reasonable, it isn't a moral slam dunk. No one would have to say, "Would you please help me get the kids out of the house because it is on fire?", for example. We all agree when it's a moral imperative. I know that I am capable of hard work because I can and have done lots of it when it had to be done but I'm not so good at doing hard work when it merely should be done.

That is why we all have trained ourselves to describe our wants as needs. It makes something that we think the other person should do for us sound more like something they have to do for us. In fact, our spouse doesn't have to give us sex because no one has ever died from living in a sexless marriage nor has anyone actually gone crazy from having to do all or most of the housework. What we really mean by our "needs" is, "This is what I believe to be a normal expectation and, since I believe that, I will be unhappy if I don't get it."

Now if we go to the response to these requests, "Please put more effort into the kinds of sex you know I like?" or "Could you help me with the dishes more often?" we can see the problem. Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, it's easy to say yes to these requests. In fact, we all know that we have said yes to requests like this many times in the past and done the task with enthusiasm and even enjoyment. And we know the other person isn't being unreasonable. But we don't feel like it anymore!

And the resentment makes it worse. If I do it now even though I don't feel like it, I'm really not going to feel like doing it next time. And I can turn to the popular culture and get support for my selfish attitudes.

The hard thing is that we have to change not just our behaviour but our attitude as well. When confronted with our spouse's expectations, we have to make them our own. We have to train ourselves to say "Yes" and actually mean it. If she/he really believes that X is a thing a husband or wife should do for heir spouse, then I should train myself to be the sort of husband or wife who thinks it is normal for a husband or wife to deliver this sort of thing.

Yes, yes, sometimes the other person's expectations are just unreasonable or wrong but which side do you think we err on most? As I say, we get a constant barrage of popular culture encouraging us to believe that we are all terribly put upon so we can just go ahead and self-righteously refuse to do things for one another. But it just isn't true. The total marriages where someone is being put upon with unreasonable requests for love, sex and help with housework might add up to ten percent of all marriages. Might! But in at least 90 percent of marriages the problem is that we don't do enough for one another and then add insult to injury by punishing one another with passive-aggressive resistance.


  1. Yeah! you are damn right!
    "But in at least 90 percent of marriages the problem is that we don't do enough for one another and then add insult to injury by punishing one another with passive-aggressive resistance..."
    I'd say: we are unable to admit that our contribution is measly, and then cover up that miserable fact with a bit of PA to recover some self-righteousness.
    Some time ago, a man I was working with said the famous phrase: I prefer to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission...and that was a clever idea: where male self-esteem is damaged (and the owner believes he can't tolerate such wound) then is better to act self-righteous, ask for forgiveness when asked or demanded, and hope that he will come out of this experience not feeling linked, attached, bonded or anything similar to a female...No way!
    Adding insult to injury is the relational view of this stubborn pretense to keep male self-esteem high regardless of the despicable behavior that sometimes he delivers...a very difficult act to keep up!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I am a little puzzled though in that you talk about these passive aggressive tricks as if they are an exclusively male thing and they clearly are not. I think you have described the mechanism that drives male passive-aggressive tactics in relationships more or less right. But what about women? Women are just as prone to these behaviours as men. Why do they do it?