A while back I posted an article on passive aggressive behavior and manipulation: its symptoms, its effects, and how to cope. One reader responded with her own situation, and we have since had long discussions on how to change the situation she is in. I am sharing her initial letter here (with some edits, for privacy) and my response, in the hopes it might help another who shares the same problem.
Here is what she wrote:“So interesting to read your own personal take on pa [passive aggressive behavior]. I have been dealing with this for 4 years now and I am mentally exhausted, feel alone a lot and tired of him always trying to prove me wrong so he can claim victim. He buys me things and then gets mad that he did so he slowly punishes me for it and when I question him about it he says it’s my attitude. It’s extremely frustrating and tiresome. Childlike. I always have to run back to him and call first. He will ignore me until the end of time. He is shut down constantly, shows no emotion but is aggressive in the bedroom. And when I show emotion he is like a stiff board. When I am crying he does not even ask why. He told me as a kid he never got any recognition. You did as you were told, end of story. He uses his money as a control mechanism. If he doesn’t like what I do or say he withdraws his financial support for me and he also withdraws himself. And once again I have to crawl back to him. He’s pathetic. If I tell him I like something he will say he doesn’t and say he likes something else. And his tone is nasty. I am always on eggshells when I want to discuss something with him. He charms the world, but those closest to him he treats like dirt. It sickens me to watch him turn on the charm to others and then turn around to me and have a different tone or barely speak to me. If I make suggestions he will never be accepting but may attempt them later on and then tell me he tried something and claim it as his. He doesn’t trust anyone. I always wonder if I am being taped or on a camera or my computer is bugged. It’s a horrible way to live. He only tells me select information and doesn’t give much details. His communication is close to zero. He punishes me all the time by ignoring me and I cannot ask him for anything for thou shall not receive. It’s bizarre. Very confusing life.”
Here is what I wrote in return:
Oh honey, I can’t help but think you must be feeling so very trapped. Thank you for sharing your burden with me. I don’t know your man, but from what you’ve written here, it sounds like he craves power and control. Maybe because he never felt he had any as a child; that his needs went unrecognized, even at times most important to him. And so he turns that on others because he feels it is owed to him. But of course that is just misdirecting his anger, and turning him from victim to perpetrator.
But I truly believe that everyone has a right to two basic things in a relationship: honesty and to be treated with basic human decency. Maybe that really just comes down to one thing. And it sounds like the kind of relationship you’re in as it stands right now is just not sustainable. It will only wear you down more and build greater resentment in you, changing who you are. Then you have to think: is that the person you want to become?
If the answer is no, you have two options. You can cut your losses and run (which I imagine others close to you have already suggested). Or you can try to make something better of it. I imagine you probably love this man a lot (or else you wouldn’t have hung around for 4 years, right?), so there must be some good you see in him. But here’s the kicker: NO ONE CAN CHANGE A MAN WITHOUT HIS CONSENT. We women love to try. But it must be his decision to change. You can change a relationship. You can change yourself. But only he can decide to be a better man; a stronger man. And strength doesn’t come from power over others; it comes from power over one’s own demons. And in his case, if he is to change, he has to decide that love and happiness is more important than power and control. It’s not an easy decision. If you’re going to change this relationship, you have to make it clear to him that he cannot have both. It’s already true: the more power he tries to exert, the less love and happiness there is in the relationship. But he clearly doesn’t see that. To him, that little bit of power gives him a thrill that makes it difficult to see how little true and pure happiness there is. And to communicate this to him properly, you really do have to be prepared to leave and be prepared to accept the possibility that he might choose power instead. You can’t issue an ultimatum: that will only play into his power games. It really just has to be a simple truth: that you are done with the way things are. And that you would rather be on your own than be abused. For that is what it is: abuse.
If you choose this road, I’m not going to lie: it’s not going to be easy. It takes time and commitment. He might beg forgiveness and try all kinds of ploys to get you back. But trust must be earned, and he must earn your trust that you are more important to him than anything else in this world, even himself. He must be willing to face everything it is that he does to try to assert power and control, and he must be willing to give each and every one of them up. You both have to come to terms with what things you do (i.e. what he does to assert power, and what you do that gives him that power) that have allowed the relationship to get to this state and both must commit to changing that. Maybe you can do this on your own, maybe a therapist might help. And remember, actions always speak louder than words. He can say whatever he likes to you: the true test is how he acts. Trust your gut: it knows how to protect you if you listen to it.
I’m sorry to put this in such stark terms. But if you take a step back from the day to day and look at the grand picture, relationships really do come down to some very basic things. But I know (oh my god, trust me on this, I really do deep-in-my-bones KNOW) how painful and difficult this is. If I were with you in person, I’d take you in my arms and give you the deepest hug I could, treat you to your favorite dessert, and just listen to everything you had to say until you ran out. And then I’d hug you some more. In lieu of all that, I hope these words help, for whatever they’re worth.
I wish you strength and courage and hope. And most of all, love.
Stay or go, the choice is never easy. In our culture, we focus a lot of our empathy on the person who gets left behind. But leaving is painful and takes courage too. If you are in an abusive, or just plain dead-end relationship, and decide it is time to leave, please check back in tomorrow. I will have a post on having the courage to say good-bye.