Something thin and delicate; something expensive and rare; something respected or revered; these are all descriptions for the word ‘fine’. But the real meaning? No I’m not fucking okay but you’re getting the cold shoulder now so I’m going to say I’m -
‘Fine’ is a passive aggressors safe space. Within the realms of fine, we can dip our toes into the communication of displeasure without the fear that confrontation will nip us from below. This is our home - our haven - and we thrive here, surviving on coded crumbs and eye rolls by the dozen. It has taken me a long time to spot it, but now I recognise that I'm as passive aggressive as they come, and for the sake of my relationships, I need to nip that shit in the bud.
So what is passive aggression? As opposed to direct displays of agitation, passive aggression is marked as "behavior characterized by expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive way" (Thank you Merriam-Webster x). Amongst other things, this manifests IRL through selective silence, withholding emotions and activity, and the refusal to compromise. Whilst these actions may seem minor - amicable, even, in situations where you feel you're preventing the eruption of a wider conflict - they foster unhealthy communication habits and, actually, are really fucking manipulative.
It's strange for me to recognise my own passive aggression, because I'm typically a very open person. I have a lot of feelings that I feel with great intensity, and so I have to find various ways of working them out. Mostly I do so through an ever-rolling iMessage exchange between myself and my best friends, but writing is also immensely cathartic. Outside of that, Keiran is routinely subjected to lengthy analyses of my emotional processes throughout any given day, most of which culminate in an interrogation of my childhood memories and a large glass *cough*bottle*cough* of wine. Given that I don't find it difficult or daunting to share my emotions, why can I recognise so many passive aggressive behaviours in the way that I am?
This article from The Guardian Online was particularly enlightening. In it, the difference between anger and aggression is laid out. "Anger is a state of psychological arousal, usually in response to an unpleasant or threatening occurrence", Dean Burnett writes, "whereas aggression is behaviour intended to harm." Anger is primary, "where the event that triggered the response is assessed and a suitable reaction calculated", and aggression is secondary, assessing "the ability to cope with the initial event, as well as the consequences of the initial response to it."
In plain speak? Anger is your brain's knee-jerk reaction, of sorts, and aggression is a reflection on that. If there is an instance where you feel your anger was misplaced, uncalled for or ultimately led to disastrous results (such as getting aggy whilst drunk and comparing your current boyfriend to your ex, for example *waves*), then you will try to act differently in the future.
Here's the thing, though: you still feel that knee-jerk anger. The initial response is still alive and kicking, but you're now wrestling with that flush of rage whilst pretending to be - and you know what's coming, don't you ? - "absolutely fine".
Burnett's concise summary says it all: "[you're] not fine, but [you] feel [you] should be."
And that hits the nail on the head, at least for me. In instances where I feel a sudden wave of anger and my mind starts turning over any number of possible responses, I'm immediately struck by the concern that I'm overreacting. I know that I'm intensely introspective and I have a lot of feelings that I feel all the time, so in any exchange where I suddenly find my back up, I'm very aware that I may be seeing things that the other person doesn't.
Let's take Keiran and I, for example. I work from home most days which means my schedule is pretty flexible, and I can pepper my workday with intermittent chores. Keir, on the other hand, leaves the house at 7:30 and often doesn't get home until gone 6, which means he has to cram his cleaning, eating and loving into a 4 hour window (aside from Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays when he's at football - busy guy!). He is time poor, which naturally means I have the lion's share of the housework. Most of the time, I'm fine with this, but some days when I come downstairs at 9pm and see three day's worth of plates stewing by the kitchen sink, I'm incensed.
He doesn't value my time. He thinks I sit at home doing nothing all day. He doesn't appreciate that what I do as a career. He relies on me to do these things because he knows I will. He takes advantage of me. I'm livid. I'm fuming. I'm going to tell him how I feel.
Except I don't. Partly because I understand that, even though HE SHOULD HAVE DONE THE WASHING UP (still not letting it go), after a long day of mixing up cement and moving bricks, he probably just wants to collapse. Partly because I know that we've had this discussion a thousand times over, as well as the argument that follows, and I can't be bothered to waste time fighting. And partly because I doubt my initial flare of anger; does he truly not value my time, or is he just tired? Is it that deep? Am I overreacting?
I already know his answer. I already know he doesn't do it to upset me. But I am still upset, and though kneading my anger out like a well-worked dough would surely release that pressure, a part of me feels like my animosity is irrational, and so I don't. Instead, it seeps out through passive aggression: claiming I'm too tired to watch our favourite TV show but then mindlessly scrolling through my phone for an hour; being distant and cold but rejecting any efforts to see if I'm okay; spontaneously cancelling evening plans because I've decided I'm "not in the mood". The trouble with these passive aggressive rabbit-holes, as we'll call them, is that they are exactly that - once you've started burrowing your way into one, it's difficult to get out.
Admitting that you're fucked off feels like a personal defeat, even more-so when you have to face up to your shitty behaviour. Whilst I use these non-verbal actions as a way of dealing with situations in which I feel I've been wronged, I end up being the wrong'un myself and burning the bridge that could have been open conversation. Rather than taking a moment to think okay, whether these feelings are justified or not, I am feeling them, so they are legitimate, I leap straight to well if he's not going to respect my fucking time then I can't be bothered wasting it trying to explain. I go straight from the possibility of a resolution, to none at all. I do myself out of precisely what I need.
And it's really manipulative. I'm making my aggression known without having to take responsibility for it, or giving Keiran the tools with which to respond. I'm charging him a finder's fee for a phone he didn't know he'd lost - with added interest.
The trouble is, as my friend Camilla and I discussed last week, for so long we as women have been told we're overemotional, to the point that we purposefully censor ourselves. Women cry too much, we overthink everything, we're weaker with a tendency for flight. "Hysterical", if we want to take it old-school. Whether the intial blaze of anger is justified or not, we're invariably aware that we could be seen as overreacting. Instead of encouraging our partners, friends, family and colleagues to be more attuned to their feelings, we dull ours down for fear or being too much - of making a mountain out of a molehill.
And so our response to that primary anger is so much more complex than 'am I right to be angry or not?'. It's a consideration weighted in history, society, culture and our own personal experiences.
That, however, doesn't change the fact that passive aggression isn't healthy, either to the person executing it or the relationship that inveitably suffers. I'm going to make a conscious effort to be more forthcoming with how I feel, even by simply declaring "I'm irritated" when I haven't had the time to figure out why yet. Sparking that first thread of conversation will hopefully prevent that inner conflict from bubbling over, and in turn, will encourage a more honest and rich connection.
Wish me luck.
P.S. Oh you don't want to comment on this blog post? That's fine. Honestly.