The ‘fifty shades of Passive Aggressive Behaviour’ we need to talk more about…

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.” ― Aristotle

Anuttama Dasgupta is a part time urban design consultant and a full time mother, who is currently chasing to the finish line the lifelong dream of becoming a published novelist. Here she opines that understanding and responding to anger appropriately is an essential part of being a functional social being.

Anger is part of our everyday reality. It is as much a part of our human experience as breathing. Whether we like it or not, every single day of our lives we run up against people who push our buttons and rouse those difficult emotions that most of us don’t even want to admit we have, let alone deal with in a constructive way. The main reason for our denial is that the people who we feel, most hurt or offended by are the very people we share our lives with. We fear that expressing our anger outwardly, will irrevocably damage our relationship. For it has been dinned into our brains since early childhood that anger is a terrible thing and must be avoided at any cost.

This thinking is extremely problematic because anger, by itself is not a bad thing at all. It is a psychological messaging system that prods us to take action when some psychological boundary of ours has been violated. Understanding and responding to anger appropriately is a very essential part of being a functional social being. In fact, when we try to do the opposite i.e. suppress the legitimate urge to express our anger, we create a bigger problem for ourselves and others. When we repress our anger instead of addressing it in a socially appropriate way, we force it deeper into our psyche and it invariably finds its own outlet in various forms of passive aggressive behaviour.

But before I get into that, let me back up a bit. I began to think deeply about passive aggressive behaviour only after I got married. Before that it was only a part of the general grey-ness of existence that I encountered from time to time but never had to actually deal with for the simple reason that I always had the choice of walking away. But marriage, I came to learn, is a prism that breaks up this general area of grey into a veritable shade card of all sorts of darkness. The reason for this is that although we think we are marrying just one person, the reality of marriage is that we are bringing two sets of people together who may not be as motivated to have a relationship with each other as the two marrying partners are. Though it sounds morbid put that way (and I do apologize for taking such a negative viewpoint), marriage sometimes forces you into relationships with people who you normally would have nothing to do with. Like the proverbial horse taken to the water, we can’t force anyone to participate in a relationship that they don’t want to embrace by themselves. Not only that, marriage is essentially a social institution. There are hundreds of vaguely defined obligations associated with it that are very easy to fault the other on. As the list of unfulfilled expectations begins to grow, there is a lot of frustration both ways.  The problem gets even worse when one or both parties fight for the egoistic upper hand on a situation rather than a peaceful resolution. As a result, a pressure cooker like situation is created where legitimate anger is vented through all kinds of subversive behaviour that psychologists call passive aggressive.

The dictionary defines passive aggressive as “of or denoting a type of behaviour or personality characterized by indirect resistance to the demands of others and an avoidance of direct confrontation.” It is a covert way of expressing anger mainly to hurt the other person back for something they have done and with a conscious or unconscious intent to avoid any type of discussion around it. It implies a certain amount of self-righteousness on the part of the passive aggressive person where he or she is ‘absolutely right’ and will not consider any other argument that challenges that stance. Or in some cases, it is motivated by an underlying fear that by talking it out, they will not get their way.  Needless to say, it plays out in many insidious ways in our everyday lives.

Here are some of the most common examples.

  1. Inappropriate venting: Trolling, road rage, real world or online heckling and ranting. You basically spare the person you are angry with and go out and take it out on the world.
  2. Complaining about minor (seemingly unrelated) matters, starting with food.
  3. Throwing a spanner in the works by going ahead and doing something when a different course of action has been negotiated. Sometimes, resorting to a feigned headache or a stomach upset to disrupt a plan that the other person has made.
  4. Being sarcastic or critical in a way that puts the other person down. Body shaming is a classic example. As is back biting and spreading rumours.
  5. Negating your feelings directly or with counter accusations (“you have no right to feel this way, because you do worse things all the time”). Or acting as if that hurtful thing was never said.
  6. Sulking and stone walling: Many people think that by ignoring someone, they are taking a non-violent stance but the truth is, wilfully ignoring someone is an act of aggression. The silence, we assume in such a case is not peaceful. It’s a shutting out. Although we do not say anything, we are resentful and want the other person to feel our pain. Unless, the person on the receiving end is someone like the Dalai Lama, it always finds its mark. But what the perpetrator does not realize is that instead of making the relationship stronger like a talk does, un-verbalized resentment lodges itself like a thorn in the other person’s heart and pushes them away.

So, how do we deal with passive aggressive behaviour? If we are trying to give someone the “silent treatment”, we must immediately stop and choose some other non-violent option. If we are being stone walled ourselves, there are several options for us too.

Here are some suggestions.

  1. Don’t take it personally. Try not to make an ego issue out of it. The more we detach ourselves from any kind of wrong, the better equipped we are the deal with it in a constructive way. Wisdom and anger are mutually exclusive.
  2. Grow a robust sense of self where you feel good being you and do not require a great deal of external validation. I know it’s difficult but it’s worth a try.
  3. Diffuse the build-up of negative energy by offering to talk. Remember that if you wear boxing gloves to the discussion table, the other person is likely to put his on too. Do not accuse or threaten. Talk and if that is too hard, write a note. Think of all the reasons why you want to keep the relationship going.

We must always keep in mind that we have a right to protest when we feel we have been wronged. But we must do so in a way that does not hurt the other person. The ultimate purpose of life is not to emerge a victorious war lord swinging a clutch of severed heads but to make the best use of our limited time in this world by nurturing others through our relationships and being nurtured in return.


Do fret the small stuff!

They say don’t fret the small stuff but it is mostly the small stuff that can drive you crazy! They are like sticks of dynamite that slowly add up and when they blow the devastation is catastrophic!

Now what do we mean by small stuff? It’s actually quite simple – these are those things that by themselves are ideally inconsequential and insignificant but do have the propensity to attract emotional value to become irritants that bother us like none other and very soon become too big to handle.

The small stuff can break couples apart and can potentially lead to divorce courts! Yup, they do.

small stuffWetting the toilet seat, toilet seats in general (up or down), dirty socks and handkerchief on the dining table, wet towel on the bed or sitting room couch, not buttering the toast properly, ‘chomping’ food or smacking lips when chewing, inability to park the car in a straight line, ringing the doorbell in quick succession, reading (start to finish) the newspaper in the loo, squeezing toothpaste tube in the middle, hair left in the sink, farting or burping loudly, dragging their feet and making a noise while walking, making dog ears in books…it’s an endless list.

Now why would such inane things drive us senseless?

Well to begin with, isn’t it true that we tend to first fall in love with the quirky traits of our partners? A crooked smile, wearing a big dialled watch on the right hand instead of left, his bald head, quick repartee & sense of humour, forgetfulness, wearing glasses at the edge of their nose, mop of curly hair, innate protectiveness, unpredictability, wrinkling nose or pouting mouth when concentrating etc.

In fact here is a list of quirks that some people love about their significant other!

Similarly, we tend to fall out of love over these seemingly small things first! Initially it might seem petty being annoyed about such nuances but slowly they shape up into symptoms of larger needs. When a partner fails to listen and respond to these minor complaints, then they turn into larger problems like you don’t listen to me, don’t care about me, you take me for granted, disrespect me, don’t want me!

3 years ago we shifted into a house where we happened to have the option of different bathrooms. It wasn’t intentional but the layout of the house and furnishings just made having separate bathrooms and cupboards convenient. From personal experience I can vouch for the fact that we enjoy our personal spaces that much more now. The bathrooms reflect our personal habits and styles, collection of toiletries don’t jostle for space and the best part – there are no issues about the infamous toilet seat!

Watching television too had been another bone of contention. Husband likes watching programmes on world war, big machines, cars etc. while I like the various crime series! But thank god for the option to record serials nowadays. He watches what he wants to while I watch my recorded serials whenever it’s convenient to me.

Interestingly the bigger problems in life, like loss of a job or death in the family have the capability of bringing couples together while the smaller ones tend to assume unmanageable proportions.

The irritants will continue to be an irritant but how one copes with them is crucial for living in harmony. I think acknowledging that you don’t have to like and accept everything about your partner is perhaps the first step. The small things we don’t like about them don’t make them ‘bad’ people (and the same goes for us too!).

How important are these small things to us? Can we tolerate them? Ignore them? Overlook them? Will they make or break us? Will they make us love our partner any less? Can we tell them exactly what annoys us directly instead of calling them names?

small stuff2I remember initially the soiled toilet seat used to upset me. Then I began either cleaning it myself or putting the seat down before use. Now with separate bathrooms, I don’t worry about it at all! Today, when he leaves the wet towel on the sitting room couch I ignore since the maid tends to pick it up and put it to dry. I’ve realised that it is easier to do that than get upset or rather sulk and expect him to understand the reason for it!

Another tactic I frequently used was to let my mind wander thinking about the annoying small stuff. When something annoys you, if you just think about it and allow thoughts to flow freely, slowly it tends to move on to other things that you might find equally annoying. The thing to note here is ‘free flow’ without giving it direction. This unhindered process of thinking will very easily elicit the actual origin of irritation – which is only being manifested through the small stuff. It’s also a way of negating the emotional connect with the small stuff and being able to handle it with maturity.

I don’t believe in ‘not’ fretting the small stuff. I think one should definitely address them, either as a couple or individually, whichever is comfortable and convenient, to understand exactly how important they truly are and then deal with them accordingly. That way you’re acknowledging their presence, dealing with their impact and learning to live in harmony – all simultaneously.

In other words you’re making the small stuff lose their capacity to become bigger later on.

Family vs Family

Now, that was the heading of an article by Vijay Nagaswami. It reminded me of the many conversations with my husband, especially when we’re in the mood to either have a good laugh or hurt each other.

What is it about the ‘family’ that makes these conversations difficult? We’re either overprotective or hypercritical – each trying to outdo the other.

When we were married, we realised that we were mere pawns – incidental to the marriage ceremony. It was our families that were playing the major roles and in no uncertain terms, we were told to keep away. So we both learnt the ‘art of silence.’

I lived with my in-laws for about 2 years before we moved out. My husband got a job in another city and I joined him, gladly. Sometimes I feel if we hadn’t perhaps we wouldn’t still be married! Interference was an understatement. We were not considered a couple who could spend time on their own or do our own thing. Everything had to include the family. Sometimes it felt good while at other times it was a challenge. Why did it seem like we were going against my in-law’s wishes when we wanted to do something on our own? Even if we decided on the spur of the moment to have dinner outside, I was made to feel guilty for having not informed my mother-in-law in advance. She wouldn’t have cooked for us. I was bluntly reminded that “it was a waste of her time.”

I remember the birthday and anniversary celebrations when the same set of people got invited – it was never about our friends or going out to celebrate ourselves, perhaps over the quintessential ‘candlelit dinner!’ It had to be celebrated at home with a home-cooked meal – which ultimately felt like an obligation.

Similarly, my parents too had their own set of expectations from us. In fact, most often, their expectations were in competition with my in-laws! So on most occasions, it was a balancing act for us – sometimes we gave in while at other times the pressure was on me to balance with my husband, his family and mine!!!

Even though we had a ‘love’ marriage, we actually ‘re-discovered’ each other when we began living on our own in a different city – it meant being away from both families. The only connection was a phone call every now and then. It didn’t matter much then because we exercised selective information sharing – what they didn’t know didn’t affect us.

Dr Nagasawami was absolutely right to suggest that ‘the resolution of the ‘family vs family’ conflict can only begin when the couple starts to think in terms of ‘We and Our Families’’. He says, “…couples should define their mutually comfortable marriage space and establish boundaries between this and the family space, thereby making the marriage space sacrosanct, inviolate and inaccessible to anybody other than both the partners.”

As a couple, we realised just how much happier we were, away from all the family drama. Family in small doses helps to build a stronger bond. But did this mean we were completely exempt from their influence? Far from it! Every phone call brought back memories and with it the feeling that we had so desperately run away from.

Yet, those earlier experiences gave us enough ammunition for future reference. We continue to use them liberally. Sometimes we laugh at each other’s expense while at other times it is a way to create maximum hurt.

The struggle still continues :-p