My stepfather was the definition of passive-aggressive. Literally.
Instead of communicating honestly when you feel upset, annoyed, irritated or disappointed you may instead bottle the feelings up, shut off verbally, give angry looks, make obvious changes in behaviour, be obstructive, sulky or put up a stone wall. It may also involve indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue. Not going along with things.
That was him, to a T. Constantly. When I was younger, I thought of my mother as a counterexample — something I could strive to be like instead of following in my stepfather’s awful example. As I got older, I started to realize more and more that my mother is passive-agressive, too, just in a different way. She’s the sweet-yet-mean passive-agressive, who says things with a smile and a sweet tone that are nonetheless meant to hurt you. And when she gets pissed, she gets just as sulky and sullen as her husband.
Passive aggression is a destructive pattern of behaviour that can be seen as a form of emotional abuse in relationships that bites away at trust between people. It is a creation of negative energy in the ether which is clear to those involved and can create immense hurt and pain to all parties.
I used to be very much like this. My wife, being Italian, is very much the opposite — she’s aggressive-assertive; she’ll get right up in your face and scream until she turns purple before she bottles up anything. That created a very bizarre dynamic for the first several years of our relationship. She would yell, I would try to put up a brief fight, and then I would sit there and stare for the next hour or two while she kept yelling, and I — afraid that I might say and/or do something stupid — would say nothing at all.
This didn’t ever resolve anything, and we had the same fights for about seven or eight years. Then, I slowly started to realize something: this really, really, sucked.
One day, I tried something different: I yelled back. We yelled at each other long and loud, and it’s one of the very few occasions I can remember when my wife actually tried to hit me. In the arm, as a gesture of pure frustration, but still — it shocked me.
And when I got over it, I realized something…the fight was over. We had reached something new to me — a conclusion. And while it took me another couple of years to fully master this new art of having a fight, I’ve found that it’s immensely superior in every way to living a passive-agressive life. God knows I walked on eggshells around my stepfather for long enough; I didn’t want to inflict that on my wife. It just took me a long time to figure out what any alternative was. Now that I’ve learned what a fight really is, it turns out that the fights we have are pretty short. We both get mad, we both yell a bit, and then we get to the business of understanding what the hell the other person wants — and it turns out we usually both want the same thing.
We also learned, thanks to the excellent book Nurture Shock, that starting a fight in front of your child and then NOT finishing it in front of them was a really bad thing to do for their psyche. If they never see you resolve a fight, they never learn how to resolve fights themselves. So when my wife and I fight, we do it all right in front of the kid, from opening salvo to final resolution.
This lesson — learning how to fight — was one of the hardest for me to learn, because the idea that I had to keep things in for fear of hurting the people around me was one I’ve had for my whole life. I’ve been keeping things in from Day One — many times, they’ve been things I wanted to say to my stepdad, that I was afraid would hurt Mom, so i didn’t. I always said what I thought I should say, instead of what I wanted to say.
I can remember one incident when my stepfather was actually going to leave my mom, because he thought she was cheating on him with some co-worker. I have no idea whether she was or not, but I walked up to him and told him not to leave, and that I’d miss him, and that “If you have to leave, fare well.”
He cried, and we all cried, and he stayed…which crushed me, because secretly, I was hoping with all of my heart that he’d get out of my and my mom’s life and let us live in peace. I still feel horribly guilty even admitting that to myself, but that’s what emotional abusers do — they make you feel guilty for everything you do that isn’t coddling them.
I’m not going to be that way. I don’t want to be coddled. (Well, OK, maybe just a little.) I’m proud to say that I’ve learned how to fight. It makes my Mom’s silent treatment that much more sickening, because I know it’s a tactic. She’s telling herself that she’s not ready because she thinks that if she tries to talk about it, she’s going to get overemotional and say something stupid. But what’s really happening is that she’s afraid that if she says what she’s really feeling, she’s going to hurt me.
She doesn’t have the slightest idea that it’s her unwillingness to get to the bottom of the issue that hurts. Having fights isn’t what ends relationships — God knows, my wife and I are living proof of that — it’s not having the fight that makes things worse.
I don’t want my kid to grow up resenting me like I resented my stepfather. I don’t want him to be ashamed of my behavior when he’s an adult, like I’m ashamed of my mother’s behavior. I’ve figured out — mercifully, I believe, in time for it to matter — that real fathers know how to fight.