Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Passive-aggressive Behavior: What I Know Now

This is a paper I wrote for a Human Relations course. This is a reflection about an interaction I had with a person. Posting this on the blogosphere may be in and of itself a passive-aggressive maneuver, and I acknowledge that. However, putting it out there may also help someone else going through a similar situation and may give them the courage to stand up for themselves.
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I met Mr. X at a very transitional point in my life. I had just gotten together with my husband and I was just starting to step into a new life of school, work and other adult responsibilities. I had known for a very long time that I was a passive person, but I did not know how much my nature influenced my interactions with other people. When I met Mr. X, he presented himself as being very passive. He had many problems involving his roommates and his employment situation, but he always expressed that these problems were due to him being “taken advantage of.” Since I had experienced similar problems in my transition to adulthood, I believed his explanation even though he is a few years older than me. I did notice, even back then, that he never blamed himself for any of his problems. He always justified himself by saying that things didn't go his way based on the actions of other people. Because I am so passive with people, I have a tendency to give myself too much perceived control. When something goes wrong, I feel as if I could have done something to prevent it, even if there is absolutely no way I possibly could have. I'll go as far as apologize for other people, even if the people I am apologizing for are hurting me in some way. Through courses at LCC and therapy, I know on an intellectual level that I do not have control over the actions of others, but I still find myself fighting this aspect of my personality and that it causes conflict with others.

Mr. X became my roommate the first time because his previous roommate evicted him. Of course, he told myself and my husband a tale of woe and assured us that the problem was with his ex-roommates and not with him. Mr. X has lived with us several times. At first the situation was amicable. He paid his rent on time and was mostly conscious about keeping the house clean. I felt that he placed value on our friendship and demonstrated this by being generally helpful around the house. The problems began when he entered into a relationship. The first relationship I found out about when I came home from work on my lunch break one day and found him asleep on my living room couch with another person, naked. I was concerned because I had never been introduced to this person before. At the beginning of our roommate relationship, all members of the household had agreed that anyone staying overnight would have to be introduced to the rest of the household. His disregard for something that everyone had agreed to made me feel that my trust in him was misplaced. Soon after this incident, he decided to move out, citing the fact that he didn't feel comfortable having his significant other stay over night, even though the only thing I had asked was to be introduced before overnight visits started. Mr. X over-generalized and assumed that I would react negatively, even after formal introductions were made. He also sent a contaminated message when he informed me of his discomfort. His tone implied that I was doing something to make him feel uncomfortable and that I should not have placed so much value in our previous arrangement because we should trust each other to make appropriate choices when inviting other people into our home.

After his relationship ended, Mr. X once again found himself looking for a place to live. He apologized for his previous behavior and assured me that he placed as much value our friendship and mutual living situation as he placed in his romantic relationships. He demonstrated again, however, that this was not the case. Again, Mr. X started spending more and more time and resources on his new relationship. What made this situation different is that the person he was involved with was on house arrest and therefore could not be introduced to us. Eventually, he began ignoring household responsibilities and became unreliable with his rent payments. This time, my husband made the decision to ask Mr. X to leave, after several failed attempts at trying to communicate our dissatisfaction with the situation. In all our conversations about the subject, Mr. X made me feel like I was being aggressive. He claimed that the reason why I was upset with him was because his significant other was on house arrest and that I didn't understand the situation. He also stated that he thought it was unfair that we were annoyed with him spending money to see his significant other while he still owed rent and utility payments. He argued that he would support me if I were in a similar situation and that he would be understanding if my rent was late because I needed to see the person I was having a relationship with.

After the second round of living with Mr. X, he disappeared for several years. He would contact us every so often through electronic means, and about once a year, a phone call. These calls usually involved Mr. X telling us about something tragic in his current relationship and that he wished he would have just stayed living with us. As the years went by, communication between us made me miss his company, even though he had treated me poorly in the past. Thinking about it now, I feel like he was diminishing his passive-aggressive behavior in order to make his relationship with me more beneficial to him. He often claimed that we were his “best friends,” yet his previous actions proved that we were not that valuable to him. Eventually, his relationship ended and he once again found himself homeless. Even though my husband was the one who eventually put his foot down and kicked Mr. X out the last time we were living with him, he was the one trying to convince me that Mr. X moving in was a good idea. It didn't take much, because Mr. X did a good job of convincing the both of us that he had changed his ways. Again when Mr. X moved in, he was in full honeymoon mode. He politely did everything we asked of him and was conscientious about figuring out how he was going to pay his share of the bills. After a couple of months his behavior began to decline. He became lazier about helping out with the chores and spent most of his earnings on going out to bars. He spent more time surfing dating chat websites than he did trying to find a permanent job. When asked about his lack of concern, he would either assure us that he was “on top of” everything or he would quickly change the subject. Whenever I would try to be assertive with him, he said or did something that made me feel like I was being aggressive and that I should back off. One example is a rather heated conversation with him about ignoring the dishes for days at a time. I mentioned that the dishes were piling up. He responded by stating that he was tired from donating plasma (his only income at the time) and having gone out the previous day. My husband said that doing the dishes was Mr. X' only chore and that he had better start doing it or face the possibility of being kicked out. Mr. X responded with a tirade about not wanting to clean up after us, and that he felt disrespected that we would even ask him to do the dishes when we knew that he was feeling “sick.” Mr. X did the dishes the next day, but they were done so terribly, we felt like it was useless to keep asking him to do the chore. A few days later, Mr. X apologized and said that he would handle the dishes if we didn't “bug him so often about it.” Up to this point, Mr. X had given me very little reason to put faith in his self-management abilities, but I knew also that if I did “bug” him about the dishes, they were just going to be done in a sub-standard fashion. The dishes were only one of many points of conflict between us. I began to feel trapped in the situation because my desire to remove Mr. X from my life was being shot down by my desire to avoid conflict and appear non-aggressive. This time, I was again provided with an easy out. Our landlord did not approve of Mr. X living in our apartment. Due to legal concerns, I had a legitimate excuse to kick Mr. X out. However, while giving this information to Mr. X, he tried to make us feel guilty about the landlord's decision. He insisted that we didn't “talk with the landlord” and that there was a way we could convince the management company to allow him to stay. He also claimed that we never told him that in order for all of us to remain living together, we would need to move into a bigger apartment. When we started living together again, both my husband and I made it clear that moving would have to be a priority and that my income would not be sufficient enough to accomplish that goal. He would have to be able to provide extra income above the rent in order for us to upgrade. We reminded him of these previous conversations. Mr. X then said that he felt that it was unfair that he should sacrifice his social life, when we could have made the current living situation work.

After not living with Mr. X for about a month and a half, I have realized a few things. First of all, I realized that the prolonged stress of being in a perpetual state of conflict with him was negatively impacting my physical and mental well-being. As the months of living with Mr. X passed, I noticed that my emotional state was becoming more negative. I became argumentative with my husband and withdrawn from my peers and family. I was sleeping less and feeling poor physically. I began to miss classes and let my attentiveness to my studies slip. I also took less pride in my work. When Mr. X left, I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I knew that prolonged conflict could lead to problems, but I didn't understand how profound those problems could become. The second thing I realized was that Mr. X was being passive-aggressive with me the entire time I have known him. After a class lecture about passive-aggressive behavior, I began to wonder if Mr. X was exhibiting this type of behavior or if I was simply taking him the wrong way. After exploring a few academic journals, I found a paper by Nora J. Johnson and Thomas Klee that explored the topic of passive-aggressive behavior and how it might be predicted in the workplace. They used several models to describe passive-aggressive behavior. The model I was particularly interested in was taken from the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. According to Johnson and Klee: “the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders requires that a person with PA (negativistic) personality disorder exhibit four or more of the following seven criteria beginning in early adulthood and in a variety of contexts:
1. passively resists fulfilling routine social and occupational tasks;
2. complains of being misunderstood and unappreciated by others;
3. is sullen and argumentative;
4. unreasonably criticizes and scorns authority;
5. expresses envy and resentment toward those apparently more fortunate;
6. voices exaggerated and persistent complaints of personal misfortune; and
7. alternates between hostile defiance and contrition.”

This model interested me because it seemed to be the one that fit my observations most accurately. I know that I am not trained enough to make a clinical diagnosis of anything, but everything I have observed while interacting with Mr. X convinces me that his behavior fits this criteria. Researching passive-aggressive behavior and having an understanding of it's definition helped me to see that Mr. X's problems were not entirely my fault. I also can put his behavior into context and am now able to better analyze the behavior of others and will hopefully be able to prevent such a prolonged period of conflict with someone else. I realize too, that I enabled Mr. X's behavior towards me. By not being more assertive, I communicated to him that I was willing to tolerate his behavior. The whole experience has taught me that assertiveness does not equal aggression and that being firm with one's needs and standing up to the resulting small conflict is a lot better than putting up with several years of hurt feelings.




References:
Johnson, Nora J., and Thomas Klee. "Passive-aggressive behavior and leadership styles in organizations." Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 14.2 (2007)

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