Passive-Aggressive Life Style Becomes Ingrained in Families

John J. Hohn, Writer

John J. Hohn, Writer, Reviewer and Commentator

#PassigveAggressive #Eldercare #Ageism

Passive-aggressive behavior can become so ingrained in a family that it becomes a way of life. Those caught  in it often don’t recognize their own dynamics. In  the The Hanged Man, Sheldon Kopp wrote that the power of passive-aggressive behavior comes from inducing proactive persons to “impale themselves on their assertiveness.” Get the other guy to act, in other words, then if something goes wrong, that person is to blame. Kopp was talking about more than the co-worker who is chronically late for work or the forgetful spouse who can foul up an evening out. He was writing about those unfortunate humans who are so unhappy with themselves that they adopt passive-aggressive posture in almost all their relationships. They become consummate victims, ever the object of slights and injustices. Their muted anguish over perceived wrongs becomes the stuff their existence. They may not show it, but they are angry. They are not often very forgiving. They do not see the world around them as most others do. Or as Eric Berne described in Games People Play, they play at a level that is calculated to hurt others – physically, emotionally or both. Make no mistake. Victims are powerful. They can hurt those who try to interact them.

Here is a story that illustrates the point.

Aunt Ruthie died. Mourners dined in the church auditorium upon returning from the cemetery.

“I’m surprised you made it,” Ruth’s son said to his Uncle Vince, Ruth’s younger brother.

“Why’s that?”

“You paid so little attention to Mother over the years.”

“That’s strange, Ruth never said anything to me about wanting to see me more often,” Vince answered.

“Well, she wouldn’t,” the son explained. “That was not her way.”

“She never said anything when we talked on the phone. Never wrote. I’d have made an effort otherwise.”

“Yeah, well, like when did you ever call her?”

“Always on her birthday and during the holiday season. Why? She complained about my not being in touch?”

“She was hurt.”

“It would’ve been easy enough for her to say something.”

“She complained to everyone one of us, the rest of the family. We saw she was upset.”

“Why didn’t you say something to me? Or to my brother. He’d have passed it on to me.  You know, something like ‘Mother’d  like to hear from you.’”

“Not my job to run the family,” the son said.

“Ruthie had a cell phone. The nursing home has a computer available. Seems like she’d have said something. Called. Or written.”

“We all have things we have to live with. You only came to see her . . . what . . . three or four times the last ten years or so. ”

“I don’t recall being invited. When I did come, she didn’t seem ready. I took her out to eat.”

“She wasn’t one to invite others to her home”, the son said.

“I live 1,250 miles away  Not exactly a Sunday drive to get to her place,” Vince protested.

“We all knew you’d have some excuse like that.”

“Look. I visited Ruth as often as I did anyone else in the family member, except for my children.  I visited her as often as I did my brother. He never complains. Cuts both ways, you know. She never came to visit me either.”

“Ever think that she couldn’t afford the air fair?”

“My brother said she spent thousands on to televangelists.”

“So, who was going to stop her?” the son replied.

“That’s not the point. She could have come to see me. She had all the resources,” Vince said, exasperated.

“She was uncomfortable on airplanes. The seats were too tight.”

“So she was completely helpless, right?”

“She didn’t like it when people were critical of her. She was in debt when she died, you know. The bank was foreclosing on her house.”

“I heard that and couldn’t imagine why. The house was free and clear when her husband passed away. She had social security and his survivor pension.”

“Mother just got tired. She didn’t like living alone. She bought lottery tickets and liked going out to the casinos. She had Swans deliver meals. Her freezer was packed full of them,” the son explained.

“None of you urged her to take better care of herself?”

“Wouldn’t have done any good.”

“Did my brother know about all of this?” Vince asked.

“Oh, yeah. He’d come up here and talk to us like were supposed to do something. At least Uncle Len came to see her regularly.”

“He lives less than 200 miles away. He doesn’t have to fly half way across the country, rent a car and then drive another 170 miles. You’ve got to look at both sides. Ruthie was invited to my granddaughter’s wedding and didn’t attend. A two hour drive from her home, and she didn’t bother to go.”

“She was hurt about that. She didn’t like driving, you know. She was uncomfortable behind the wheel.”

“Lots of people her age drive.”

“She wanted to get one of us to drive her,” the son explained.

“Why didn’t you?” Vince asked.

“None of us was invited.”

“Ah, for Pete’s sake,. None of the cousins were invited from either side of the family. The couple felt that inviting them looked like trolling for gifts. If it meant Ruth getting there, an accommodation could be made  Didn’t anyone ask?”

“Yeah, like we should call and invite ourselves.”

“Ruthie could have called. She was an invited party. She could have made the request. Nobody would turn her down,” Vince countered.

“I don’t suppose it occurred to you to come get her.”

“Me?” Vince chuckled, “with all the folks living right here close to her. It never crossed my mind.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“Your Uncle Len could have bought her. Her home was practically on his way.”

“Uncle Len didn’t volunteer. We just supposed he didn’t want to.”

“So, nobody asked. Not Ruth. None of you.”

“I knew that it would be useless to talk to you about Mother. Just forget it.”

Negative Inferences are Deliberate . . .

The outcome of any exchange with a passive-aggressive personality is usually predictable. Escalation will take place as the more assertive party tries to correct the false impression or erroneous interpretation of their actions. The false impressions and negative inferences are deliberate, of course. Maybe not consciously so, but allowing for the benefit of the doubt is not in the repertoire of a passive-aggressive person. Frustration and  anger are the payoffs for them. The wheedling, jabbing and evasiveness eventually strike home. Score one for passivity.

Nothing anyone says will make any difference. Passive-aggressive people build a life around ignoring what others think. Reaching an understanding is rarely their objective. They are playing a game, consciously or unconsciously.

Anyone taking the time to look into Ruth’s life would have discovered that she was an accomplished passive-aggressive manipulator. She thrived on failure. Failure brought more attention than achievement. Generous and thoughtful people who came into her company soon found out that they could not do enough for her. The bar was always raised. Higher and higher until resentment ruptured the relationship. Ruth saw herself as incapable of returning any favors. Any consideration. As a result, she didn’t.

Thrive on Failure . . .

Ruth’s game went forward on the strength of two beliefs. First, you were not to expect as much from her as you would anyone else. She could afford a computer, but didn’t buy one. Owning one meant others would expect her to email. She had a cell phone because she expected others to call her, but she did not use to the phone to initiate contact. She could write but didn’t. Most of her peers, men and women in the mid-seventies, still drove cars. They maintained a healthy style of living so that they could engage with others as they moved into their later years. Ruth, however, was obese. Her children saw her as disabled. At age 75, she took to a wheelchair and gave up entirely on getting around on her own. To suggest that she was capable but not trying, to urge her to try in the most compassionate terms, was tantamount of sacrilege. The people around Ruth, her children primarily, ignored the obvious.

Second, Ruth’s game also went forward on the belief nobody should ever do anything to hurt Ruth. Don’t correct her. Don’t cross her. Don’t suggest anything, or she will be hurt and the transgressor will suffer the blame and endure the guilt. Ruth never forgave. She never forgot.

Our culture benefits every day from the contributions of women who overcame obstacles and challenges much greater than those Ruth faced. Role models were available everywhere. Heavy women, slight women, tall women, blind women, deaf women, cancer survivors, combat survivors, divorce survivors, widows, authors, dancers, singer, actors — the list goes on and on. Yet for Ruth the  task of making a phone call to express a wish was too much. Writing an email was too much. Even when doing so was in her own best interest.

Roth’s childhood and her years as a  young adult may have been less than fortunate. She never missed a meal. Never suffered from a serious illness. Her family was well-off. Yet she was entrenched in her way of relating to others. Like most of us, she may not have been extraordinarily talented in any area of her life. She probably found herself on the outside as a youngster. Was she not attractive enough? Bright enough? Athletic enough? Musical? It didn’t matter. Trying was so hurtful that she stopped trying. She got attention by standing apart and looking for sympathy. Her parents worried about her. They wanted to do more for her. She was unfortunate. She didn’t have all the things going for her that other girls had. Ruth managed to get her parents to play into her helplessness.

The truth is, of course, Ruth could do all the things normal people do. Slowly and surely, however, less and less was expected of her until she did not need to do much at all. She convinced everyone around her, as she did herself, that she was not capable. It was easier caring for her than it was to demand that she take care of herself. Nobody insisted that she do for herself and move with the rest of the family in the stream of life. Eventually, she was surrounded by enablers, other passive people, who did not have the courage, or perhaps, the wisdom to confront her.

From the conversation above, it is evident that Ruthie’s model of passivity has been passed along to at least one of her children. It will take energy and courage to break the pattern that may go on for generation after generation.

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