10 Ways to Deal With a Passive-Aggressive In-Law

Dealing with in-laws can be difficult. Unlike the family you grew up with, you do not have the benefit of years of experience in learning to understand them. While there are many personality traits that are difficult to swallow, passive-aggressiveness may be the most challenging of all the traits to handle in your newer family members. Passive-aggressive people are indirect and avoid confrontation. Never admitting to how they are really feeling, they subtly try to punish others through disguised insults, “accidentally” sabotaging events and playing the victim. Passive-aggressive types also tend to manipulate their loved ones into doing what they want, rather than just asking outright. All of this can be very frustrating to those around them. Because of the inability to admit to their true feelings, resolution with these folks can feel impossible. Before you get too discouraged, try these tips when interacting with your passive-aggressive in-law.

  • Stop Asking – Often, passive-aggressive people want to be seen as heroes that will do anything for their friends and family. As a result, your passive-aggressive in-law will offer to do favors that she really does not want to do. She will then become resentful of the commitment she made, which can result in pouting, martyrdom or even sabotage. An example would be a mother-in-law who offers to babysit but then shows up late, causing you to miss your reservations. Another instance is the sister-in-law who says she will attend your fundraiser and then pouts the entire time, making everyone uncomfortable. There is an easy way to avoid these antics. Simply stop asking your passive-aggressive in-law for help and politely decline their offers.
  • Don’t Feel Guilty – One of the passive-aggressive person’s most powerful weapons is guilt. You might share your family’s vacation plans, only to have it answered by a long tirade of how lonely your father-in-law is and how he has nobody to vacation with. Or, your mother-in-law might tell you how upset your husband’s third cousins are because they are not invited to your child’s birthday party. Don’t fall for this kind of manipulation. Remember that you have a right to make your own decisions based on your own set of ethics. Most likely, no matter what you do, you will never live up to your in-law’s standards and he will up the ante next time. A passive-aggressive person wants to feel in control, and guilt is the method he often uses to obtain it. The best thing you can do is emotionally separate yourself and not allow anyone to make you feel guilty for your choices.
  • Confront Them With “I” Statements – Confronting a passive-aggressive person is often the best defense. One reason people become passive-aggressive is fear of confrontation. If there is a chance of being confronted, she will likely stop the behavior, or at least stop it with you. However, confront her only using “I” statements such as, “I felt upset when you made that comment about my weight,” or “When you were late for the party, I thought you did not want to come.” This prevents her from feeling attacked and playing the victim. Using “I” statements can open the door for communication with your passive-aggressive in-law because it is non-threatening.
  • Act As If – A passive-aggressive person will often sigh, sulk or look angry; yet when asked if something is wrong, he will usually respond that he is fine. This can send relatives into a tailspin of worry, fretting over whether there was some accidental offense or secret tragedy. Instead of agonizing, just take what is said at face value. If your relative says he feels great, then act as if he feels great. If he is not okay, he can seek you out and let you know. Until then, accept what he tells you as the truth. It is not your job to read his mind or analyze his body language.
  • Don’t Take It Personally – Passive-aggressiveness is often the result of being punished as a child for expressing negative feelings, or it can be due to an extreme fear of confrontation and loss of control. As unpleasant as she makes life for those around her, the passive-aggressive is also suffering. Don’t take her actions personally. She most likely is unaware of what she is doing, as it is such an ingrained pattern.
  • Model the Behavior You Want to See – When you are spending time with your passive-aggressive in-law, be mindful of your own actions. Act with him the way you want him to behave with you. This will help set a precedent for your future interactions.
  • Figure Out What The Reward Is – Everything people do, they do for some kind of reward. If a behavior fails to bring the return, it will eventually desist. The passive-aggressive person is usually seeking to be gifted with making you feel badly. Therefore, keep smiling as if you are blissfully unaware of any ill will.
  • Take the Ball Out of Your Court – One thing passive-aggressive people will not do is make decisions. Instead, a passive-aggressive in-law will try to manipulate you into making the decision he wants. This way, he bears no responsibility if things go wrong and he retains the option to complain about your choice. Force your in-law to make choices, such as where to eat or when to get together.
  • Keep Your Temper – If you lose your temper with a passive-aggressive person, she will fall into the role of the victim. Because of her indirect way of communicating, she will be able to deny any responsibility for your behavior, making you the bad guy.
  • Use Parenting Skills – When all else fails, use the same skills you use when dealing with children. Praise the behavior you want to see again, be consistent in never giving in to the passive-aggressive tactics and ignore any undesirable conduct.
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