Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Manipulator

by Beth McHugh

Please note: here at Fort Refuge we believe that Passive-Aggressive behavior can be a characteristic of the perpetrator of abuse, the victim/survivor of abuse, and/or an uninvolved bystander. This article is a part of our section on navigating relationships - not on characteristics of abusers. If you feel some of these traits apply to you - that does not make you an abuser. If they apply to your partner, parent, sibling, friend, etc - that does not make them abusers either. Abuse is a crime, not a flawed relationship pattern; please browse articles on abuse for its definition and characteristics.

In their own minds at least, the passive-aggressive person believes they are nice people; easy to please, eager to help, and always willing to take on more than their fair share of the workload. They are professional martyrs. And they hunger for approval.

All this would lead you to think that these folk would be the easiest of people to get on with, so much so that they are the human equivalent of doormats. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Passive-aggressives love to give of themselves. Sounds great, doesn't it? Yet, if you are involved with a passive–aggressive, you will know that it comes at a price. If they do something for you, they expect and demand the same in return.

Dawn is a passive-aggressive middle-aged female who showed her true colors one day when her friend had arranged for her to accompany her to the doctors. Unfortunately, on the day, Dawn was feeling ill. She didn't want to go with her friend to the doctors that day. When she was quizzed as to why she didn't just explain that she was feeling sick and couldn't go, she flatly refused. She stated that despite the fact that she was sick, she would be attending the appointment with her "friend" because at a later time, when she herself wanted her "friend" to do something for her, she would have this ace up her sleeve.

Clearly, passive-aggressive people do not act as a normal person would, nor do they see that other people live by a different set of rules to them. Despite her own feelings of unwellness, Dawn was determined to attend the appointment. This illustrates Dawn’s need to look good and appear to never put themselves first. They keep up the façade that they will do anything for their friends. Yet this act of friendship in "helping" her friend was not really friendship at all. In Dawn's mind, it was a business transaction only. I will do this for you and somewhere further down the track, I will call this account in. Yet in revealing the inner workings of her mind, Dawn clearly has no idea that this is not how good friends treat each other.

Dawn's form of manipulation in this instance is quite subtle: her friend had no idea that she was an unwitting victim in a plot that existed only in Dawn's head. On the contrary, Dawn's friend thought she was a really kind-hearted person. And this is exactly what Dawn wanted her to think.

But there are more overt means of control used by passive–aggressives and yet, in themselves, they seem harmless enough. Behaviors such as sighing, sniffing, eye-rolling, and back-handed compliments. And the most popular of all, sulking. In themselves, these activities seem fairly weak and ineffective tools of warfare. But over months and years, living with a person who uses emotional terrorism to obtain what they want can lead to significant frustration and even illness in the recipient. It's like having a fight with an invisible enemy, because the passive-aggressive doesn't use tangible tools. There is no screaming and yelling, no throwing of pots and pans, no name-calling. That is because they need to maintain for themselves their ideal of being perfect.


Because the passive-aggressive person inherently believes they are blameless, innocent, and basically good people, anything that threatens that view of themselves threatens the very core of their being. They live in a world where they must conceal all the "awful" things about themselves at all costs.

Yet, for the most, none of these things are awful at all. They are normal human emotions. Emotions like anger, disappointment, sorrow. The passive-aggressive, perfect as they are in their own minds, simply do not get angry. They do not yell, nor are they so undignified as to lose their temper. They'll leave that up to you, so that, once again, they can justify that they are the ones in control. While you, on the other hand, are clearly a difficult and hurtful person.

As they hunger so much for approval, if they don't get it when they expect, the rage will come out. But the rage comes out in a muted form: sighs, sulks, sniffs. That way, they can easily maintain their façade, if questioned, that they are not angry at all. Somehow admitting to normal human emotions is next to impossible for these people.

So, how best to cope with one?

  1. If you ask "What is wrong?" in response to a period of pronounced sighing or sulking and the answer is "Oh, nothing," simply say, "Okay". This is making the PA responsible for their own responses. In time it may make them actually admit that they are angry, and valuable progress may be made. As a bonus, you, as the potential victim, will not get sucked in to yet another round of Question and Answer Time, where you will ultimately lose.
  2. Be direct and assertive yourself. If you are angry, say so. If you are disappointed with a passive-aggressive, let them know. Do not be sidetracked into using their language of vagueness and non-assertiveness. Insist on the language of reality.
  3. Do not enter into a battle with a PA; once you have done so, you have lost the war. The only person you can change in this situation is yourself, so you must approach each potential "battle" by suspending your own beliefs about the way your relationship with this person "should" be. You must accept that it is not going to be the way it "should be." Easy to say, hard to do, but necessary for your own mental health.
  4. Observe their actions, not their words. Although they genuinely believe they do everything for other's interest and not their own, their actions speak louder than their words. Do not take their sugary platitudes at face value, it is only their actions that you should take note of.
  5. Always give lots of positive feedback. As PA's crave love, when they do genuinely perform well, heap praise on them. Technically this is a form of counter-manipulation, but honest praise is still honest praise.
  6. Avoid criticism. This will only elicit an endless stream of explanations, rather than what you want: an apology. Nor will there be any behavior changes. Accept that apologies or personality changes are almost impossible to come by with a person with this affliction.
  7. Do not waste your time attempting to explain to the PA why their behavior is in error. It's easy to believe that at some point you will get through to this person and they will experience the "Ah-ha!" phenomenon, and all will be well. This is particularly the case with people who are themselves very rational and logical. This process cannot work with the PA.
  8. If you can't control your temper, avoid interacting with a PA. Your temper will be interpreted by them as further evidence of your abuse towards them, and further justify their own position as innocent martyr. Under these circumstances, it is better to keep your distance.
  9. Other articles by Beth McHugh:

    Beth McHugh Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Small Steps I
    Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Small Steps II
    Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Lists
    Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Motivational Statements
    Recovering From A Breakdown - Benefits Of Helping Others
    Recovering From A Breakdown - The Power Of Counting Your Blessings

    Dealing With A Passive-Aggressive Manipulator

    Beth McHugh chose to make a career change, switching from science researcher to psychologist, as a result of encountering life problems of her own. Her personal journey of self-discovery, involvement in support networks and academic training have all made unique contributions to the ideas and methods she employs as a counselor. Beth offers email counseling, and frequently publishes articles on various mental health subjects. More of her articles can be found at