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Can a Toxic Relationship Make Me Toxic Too?

My brother is married to a passive aggressive woman and he is very unhappy in his relationship. I have a friend who just got engaged to a passive-aggressive woman. Both my friend and my brother have developed quite a few negative personality traits that make me not want to be around or even talk to them. Do you think it's their true natures coming out (ages 35-40) or the result of relationships with passive aggressive women?

Great question! I am sorry that you are having a difficult time being around your friend and brother right now. Passive-aggressive behaviors, which are hostile and resistant actions that a person expresses in very subtle or indirect ways, are not fun to experience. For example, your sister-in-law might give your brother the “cold shoulder” to show she is angry and defiant rather than telling him about the real reason she is she upset about something. 

Psychologists have used the term Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) as a label to characterize people who are chronically stubborn, pouty, sulky, irritable, procrastinating, and argumentative.1 More recently, PAPD was renamed Negativistic Personality Disorder to include other negative behaviors, such as complaining about being misunderstood, envy of others, and exaggerated complaints of personal misfortune.2 Both terms have been controversial; some psychologists believe that many of the symptoms only occur in certain situations (or certain relationships) and do not reflect an underlying pervasive personality trait that the person carries with them across relationships.3

Your question about your brother and friend reflect the controversy around the labels used for PAPD; is your brother’s negativity due to some underlying “negativity trait” that is just being exasperated by his wife, or is this just a new symptom unique to the relationship?

Personality researchers have long argued that personality traits are flexible and dynamic— we all have broad level traits like extraversion that are expressed across most situations, but our everyday experiences and beliefs can change who we are as people over time. When an individual constantly expects others to behave negatively, he or she responds to conflict in ways that undermine the relationship.5 For example, your brother may start an argument with your sister-in-law about her use of the “cold shoulder” technique because he is frustrated that she won’t directly tell him what she is upset about. His argument may reinforce your sister-in-law’s belief that if she were to be more direct, the argument could potentially get worse. In other words, the beliefs of both partners are perpetuating the passive-aggressive behaviors in the relationship. This example helps demonstrate why personality traits are flexible, but hard to change — it takes a long time to change, and many different beliefs and feelings need to be altered in order to make significant changes to personality happen.

I know personally how hard it is to witness people you care about get sucked into toxic relationships. And, I also know what it is like to be stuck in one. My suggestion is to be as supportive and neutral with your friends as possible, and be direct about how their negative behaviors are affecting you. Hopefully, they will be receptive and reflect on why they are acting that way towards you. If they come to the personal realization that their negative behaviors have developed because of their relationship, then maybe they will make some changes there as well.

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1American Psychiatric Association (1987). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (3rd ed., rev.) Washington, DC: Author. 

2American Psychiatric Association (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.) Washington, DC: Author. 

3Millon, T. (1993). Negativistic (passive-aggressive) personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 7, 78-85.

4Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (1995). A cognitive-affective systems theory of personality: Reconceptualizing the invariances in personality and the role of situations. Psychological Review, 102, 246-268.

5Pietrzak, J., Downey, G., & Ayuduk, O. (2005). Rejection sensitivity as an interpersonal vulnerability. In M. Baldwin (Ed.), Interpersonal cognition, (pp. 62-84). New York: Guilford.

Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr.  Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.

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Reader Comments (1)

Yes, I do believe that a relationship with someone who is passive-aggressive can have a negative impact. Everyone possesses the innate ability to lean toward both the positive and negative. A partner in a relationship can influence you in either direction. Of course, if you are a very secure person who values yourself and how you feel, they will have less influence on you toward the negative.

April 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLynn S.
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