What Causes Passive Aggressive Behavior?

Courtesy Dominic Cram/Getty Images

If you are in a relationship with a passive aggressive I’m sure you’ve asked yourself, “how did he/she become so passive aggressive?" Where and how did this odd way of coping with problems manifest itself? What causes passive aggressive behavior!

This article is an attempt to answer that question. Before moving forward though it should be understood that there is no “one size fits all” answer to the question of what causes passive aggressive behavior.

As individuals, we all have unique stories whether we are personality disordered or not. There are sociological and biological issues at play in determining a person’s personality. Both how we were raised and our genetics play a role in how our personalities develop. So, when reading this article please be aware that when attempting to figure out your passive aggressive there is much to consider. More than likely much more than you will find in this article.

2 Ways Someone Become Passive Aggressive?

1. Family of Origin Issues:

We all have stories of childhood trauma. It isn’t the trauma that determines our personality and how we deal with life but how we perceive the trauma and ourselves. We hear stories daily about people who suffer abuse during childhood but go on to live fulfilling, successful lives. They do so because they don’t make their identity about the abuse suffered.

The passive aggressive develops patterns of behavior as children when dealing with what they perceive as traumas that are negative, patterns meant to help them cope with the perceived trauma.

For the sake of this article, I’m going to give examples based on my experience with an ex who is passive aggressive.

My ex was inconsistent; he sent messages via his behavior that kept me second guessing what he meant and what he need. He was a very self-sufficient man. He traveled a lot but never needed me to do his laundry or pack his bags.

He didn’t have a favorite food that I could cook for him and he had little interest in sex which meant he had no need for me. The man could take care of himself…in every way and he made sure that I understood that.

On the other hand, he feared me leaving him. He made it very clear during communication that he “couldn’t imagine his life without me.” His behavior said to me, “I don’t need you but, don’t you dare go anywhere.”

I was lucky enough to get to know his mother and see behaviors in her and hear stories from his childhood that gave me a clear look at how he became passive aggressive. For example, the passive aggressive fears abandonment. His mother was fond of telling others how her children slept through the night at two weeks old. According to her, she kept her children in her room until they were two weeks old. At that age they were then transferred to an upstairs bedroom, the door was closed and she went to her room and closed the door. She said she, “never heard a peep out of them.”

She was on a different floor with two closed doors between her and an infant; I would imagine she didn’t hear a “peep” out of them! She quite literally abandoned her children at the age of two weeks old.

And the seed was planted. Out of the nine boys, she raised they all have passive aggressive tendencies, some worse than others but to some degree, they are all passive aggressive.

What she started at two weeks old she carried on throughout their childhood. She was distant emotionally; there were never words of love or signs of affection for her children. Her children were deprived of the essentials any child needs to survive and grow into healthy adults.

If you are in a relationship with a passive aggressive, do some digging into his childhood. Pay attention to his/her parent’s behaviors. More than likely your passive aggressive didn’t have warm, loving parents.


Fear of Anger: Most of us learn that it is bad to express anger inappropriately. The passive aggressive learns that expressing anger in any way is bad and that he/she is bad for feeling anger.

There was no anger or conflict allowed in my ex’s childhood home. His childhood was void of any kind of emotion but especially anger or expressions of anger. The only person allowed to be angry was his mother. And from what I understand she could get angry with a capital A.

As a result, he was taught:

  • Anger is an unnatural emotion, one to keep under wraps.
  • To stuff his anger and anger that is stuffed has to come out in some way, normally covert, passive aggressive ways.
  • To never consciously express anger because to do so makes him a bad person.
  • To not trust a wife/husband who expresses anger.
  • To resent authority and this is understandable if you are raised by an affection-withholding, angry mother or father.

We all learn how to express our feelings from our family of origin. The amount of loving security we are given and how anger is dealt with in our childhood will determine how we deal with those issues as adults.

It's a Power Trip: The one thing most passive aggressive's have in common is their "air of superiority." Seriously, have you ever met one who did act as if they were better than you? Withholding what they know you need, playing the victim to your unreasonable demands or, sabotaging your desires gives them the upper hand. The passive aggressive keeping you in a one-down position keeps them feeling superior which feeds their damaged ego and self-esteem. They feel good about themselves when you are feeling bad about yourself. 

The passive aggressive becomes passive aggressive because he/she is taught in early childhood to not express their feelings or needs, in fact, they are taught to hide their true feelings and that is the crux of the issue…figuring out what your passive aggressive really feels and really wants and needs from you.