Passive-aggressive silent treatment

Updated February 21, 2017

Anger is a normal emotion that calls for a certain amount of finesse to express appropriately. Passive aggressive silent treatment is a form of anger that's been suppressed, but still comes out in indirect ways. When used as a coping mechanism for everyday conflicts, this mode of communication can lead to relationship problems with friends, family and most especially in the workplace.


Passive aggressive silent treatment is a form of hostility shown by someone who is unable (or unwilling) to express their true feelings in a constructive manner. The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) lists a condition called Passive Aggressive Personality Disorder (PAPD) where individuals continually lash out in family and work environments when called upon to do something they don't want to do. These behaviours are most noticeable in the work environment when demands are made by authority figures.


Passive aggressive silent treatment is a nonverbal behaviour that's used to communicate feelings of anger and resentment that can't be expressed verbally. It's not uncommon for someone with PAPD to appear agreeable, and to carry out requested tasks. However, the manner in which these tasks are done may be reckless, and even destructive or counterproductive. Individuals may often complain how they feel taken advantage of and unappreciated, in spite of their substandard performance. An overall negative attitude is expressed through frequent complaining, irritability and an argumentative disposition.


According to psychoanalytic theory, individuals who communicate through passive aggressive silent treatment may have acquired this behavioural style during their early childhood years. A child raised in a non-nurturing environment is prone to develop feelings of rejection, which may lead to resentful acts of rebellion. These behaviours are intended to gain the attention of the parents, and provide an outlet for the child's angry feelings. In effect, they are a coping mechanism that helps the child deal with a non-nurturing environment.


Individuals who communicate through passive aggressive silent treatment at best have strained relationships with friends, family and/or coworkers. Negative feelings, or attitudes that persist for long periods of time, typically give way to depression symptoms. As the anger a person feels remains unexpressed, these feelings can turn inward on the self, which is the tipping point for depression. When used as a coping mechanism, individuals with PAPD may develop low self esteem issues, as well as feelings of anxiety that increase over time.


Treatment approaches for passive aggressive personality disorder focus on helping individuals communicate feelings in a constructive way. Therapy can assist with resolving issues surrounding authority figures by helping individuals develop a healthy self concept. Individuals also learn to see cause and effect events within their relationships by identifying what situations trigger feelings of anger and resentment. Understanding the effect their behaviours have on how others react helps individuals take responsibility for the part they play in creating negative situations. Unfortunately, individuals who have this disorder are not the most likely candidates to seek therapy. Oftentimes, friends, family or work associates are the ones who persuade them to get counselling. Barring that, those who've hit rock-bottom may reach a point where they realise help is needed, and seek out therapy on their own.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article

About the Author

Jacquelyn Jeanty has worked as a freelance writer since 2008. Her work appears at various websites. Her specialty areas include health, home and garden, Christianity and personal development. Jeanty holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from Purdue University.