Wright Foundation | February 24, 2016

How to Deal with
Actions in Relationships

Everyone is guilty of passive-aggressive actions now and again. How many times have we been mad at our partner and chosen to enact the silent treatment?

Or how many times have we done something we just KNOW is going to piss them off (…without being too obvious about it)?

Unfortunately, we don’t always take the high road in our partnerships. Sometimes we engage in unfair warfare.

I’m not talking about those moments when you’re too mad to say anything and you need a little break or some space to cool off. In such a case, articulate, “I need some space,” and take a breather. Taking a quiet moment can be healthy.

I’m talking about the times when you decide to stop talking because “that’ll show her”—or those moments when you bring up something to “shame” your partner in front of others because you know he’s not in a position to fight back with an audience. Yes, these are those passive-aggressive actions, or as we like to call them: “The Hidden Middle Finger.”

Hidden Middle Fingers

We’ve all been there before: we’re no longer fighting fair and we’re not following the rules of engagement. In our new book, The Heart of the Fight, we explore 15 common couples’ fights and reveal the skills you need to navigate successful, growth-focused conflict in relationships.

When you choose to shut down and stonewall your partner, you’re not just making yourself “feel better” by “showing” him or her. These silent middle fingers to our partner send a powerful and not-so-subtle message. Unfortunately, the message isn’t one of love and engagement—it’s not a message articulating our yearnings to see and be seen, to need and be needed. Instead, it’s a way of trying to force our partner to feel bad.

Silence speaks volumes in relationships; it’s much more damaging than healthy conflict. It sounds counterintuitive, but un-hiding your “middle finger” and getting that conflict out in the open can help things move along in a more engaged, productive manner.

Available NOW on Amazon.com: The Heart of the Fight: A Couple’s Guide to Fifteen Common Fights, What They Really Mean, and How They Can Bring You Closer.

Life = Conflict

Every relationship has conflict—friendships, marriages, parenting, and partnerships. It’s a natural part of life. Any time we interact with others, there are both expectations being met and expectations not being met. Desires are realized and broken.

Conflict comes up when two people have a different viewpoint, a different desire, or a different need. If you’re engaged, fully involved, and honest in your relationship, then conflict should be a regular occurrence. None of us is so keen at recognizing every need of our partner (or of any other human being) that we can sail through life conflict-free. We all have desires and yearnings.

The key to dealing with conflict is to recognize it can be a productive way to learn and grow within our relationships. Biologist Elisabet Sahtouris discusses how conflict is a natural and inherent part of life itself. Even cells are in a state of division and reproduction, as they split during mitosis and develop into more cells. Conflict is a natural and necessary part of growth and development.

Passive-Aggressive Act…or Honest Mistake?

When you find yourself thinking, “That’ll show him,” or, “She did [x], so I deserve to do [y],” you’re not engaging in productive discussions that move the relationship forward. Burning your husband’s steak when you know he likes it rare, or bringing home your wife’s car with an empty gas tank—these little acts can seem so small they almost become invisible.

They are all, however, small acts of warfare. Withholding our emotions and affection and ignoring the yearnings of our partner on purpose are small ways we erode the strength of our connection and the trust of our partner.

Now, perhaps you didn’t fill up the car just because it didn’t occur to you. Perhaps you lost track of what was cooking on the stove and you accidentally burned the steak. Those things happen. You are not responsible for your partner’s emotions and they aren’t responsible for yours. As long as your intentions are good, mistakes happen.

However, if you both follow the rules of engagement, you should be interacting with each other in an honest, open manner and always assuming goodwill. Passive-aggressive acts don’t fit. If you’re assuming goodwill and you and your partner are both being honest, then little acts of war won’t and can’t happen.

This means when your partner does something to really push your buttons, you have to speak up and tell them. Rather than not calling them back or being a little quieter than usual and hoping they’ll notice, you have to pipe up and say, “I don’t like this. This made me angry.”

What Are You Holding Back?

Being honest doesn’t mean always saying what makes the other person happy, or telling your partner exactly what they want to hear. It means you’re going to say some things that will make your partner angry—and that’s perfectly okay.

Flipping the silent middle finger never resolves an issue or deepens the relationship. Issues must be brought out into the open to be expressed and addressed. As your social and emotional intelligence grows within your relationship, so does your ability to communicate openly with your partner.

Just like compounding hurts and resentments can drive you apart, addressing these feelings can help bring you back together. It might be easier to just burn the steak or ignore the gas warning light, but in truth, these passive-aggressive acts mean you’re just spinning your wheels and going nowhere. Bring your feelings out in the open and make them known so you and your partner can focus on all the things that really matter and continue to grow—together.

To continue the conversation on engaging with others and to discover ways to bring out your best self, click here to learn more about our next More Life Training.

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Wright Foundation for the Realization of Human Potential, a leadership institute located in Chicago, Illinois. Wright Living performative learning programs are integrated into the curriculum at Wright Graduate University.