The Best Way to Respond to Passive Aggressive Relatives

You will encounter them. Here's your best defense.

Thanksgiving starts the annual five-week marathon of too much of everything: alcohol, food, pies, spending, and forced interactions with relatives. Out of the many personalities you’ll encounter, from the cousin who likes her Scotch to the uncle who has to talk politics to the brother-in-law who likes to perpetually stir the pot, perhaps the most infuriating is the passive-aggressive relative. You know the type: the one who enjoys peppering you with a nice spray of sarcasm or sentences softened by “Oh, I thought you knew that“-style responses. It’s enough to make you double down on a Lozol prescription.

Your first thought might be to approach the behavior head-on. But confrontation — and believing it will work — is actually a blind spot for most people when engaging with passive aggressive folks, says Loriann Oberlin, a licensed clinical professional counselor and co-author of Overcoming Passive Aggression. People want to trade lines. They think they’ll be the one who cracks the code and gets the, “I’m wrong. I’m sorry” admission. Everyone will cheer and toast you reuniting the family.

Nope. Not a chance.

It just doesn’t work that way, she says.

If every time you sit on the couch to watch football the fighting begins, don’t sit on the couch. If being alone with one of them leads to comments — and it usually does — don’t be alone with any of them.

Passive aggressive people didn’t develop their attitudes on the ride over to the house. It’s a deep-seated behavior, says Dr. Gladys Frankel, a clinical psychologist in New York City. They struggle with anger. They can’t own up to it. They don’t have great coping skills, so they make comments. But it’s so ingrained, and effortless, that it’s not part of a conscious plan. The problem is when you decide to take on your passive-aggressive uncle, you fall into the trap, Oberlin says. He’s looking for a fight, and it’s like in any game. One guy takes the first swing. One guy retaliates. Who usually gets caught?

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More than that, because you have intention to take him down, you’re going to come off as calculated. Not a good look. Plus, any incisive comment won’t work. Strike two. Plus, you’ll get agitated and your uncle will sing his hit song, “Hey, I was just talking. Why you being so hostile?” Game over.

“They’re better at being subtle. You’re the one who looks bad,” says Dr. Al Bernstein, a psychologist in Portland, Oregon and author of Emotional Vampires. Or, put more simply, he says. “Who’s the biggest asshole? You’re the biggest asshole if you’re angriest.”

So instead of doing you’ve always done, which has never worked, you have to Bill Belichick it and draw up a new game plan. First, do a little visualization, recreate past scenes, and see where your defenses break down, Oberlin says. Once you isolate weak spots, you adjust. If every time you sit on the couch to watch football the fighting begins, don’t sit on the couch. If being alone with one of them leads to comments — and it usually does — don’t be alone with any of them. If you know that you, and everyone else, is at their best at 1 p.m. for 90 minutes, well there’s your time slot.

But like a good Belichick, you want to have trick plays, and with passive aggressive people, counter-intuitiveness is your special club. When they chirp, compliment them with, “I’m really glad you shared your feelings,” Oberlin says. Bernstein suggests creating your own brand of passive aggressiveness with, “Could you just explain what you meant?”

Ultimately, you need to treat your passive aggressive kin like your children. They need love the most when they’re acting the most unlovable. 

Both are delivered in your most positive, low-key tone. With no anger, there’s no oxygen for the fire. The first approach is stunning. Offenders have no clue how to handle positivity and they might just shut down, if not walk away. With Option No. 2, the passive aggressor thrives on the quick, covert strike. Making him repeat and clarify takes the sting, and fun, out of the comment. And the person is more exposed, something that your relative does not thrive on, Bernstein says.

Ultimately, you need to treat your passive aggressive kin like your children. They need love the most when they’re acting the most unlovable. When the dig comes out, take a pause and think, “This person must be really effed up to have to say something like that.” It’s not going to suddenly make you love them, but that’s not the point. You just want a touch of empathy to shift you out of reacting and into rational thinking, Oberlin says.

And that’s the main point. It’s the holidays. It’s supposed to be somewhat festive. Melting down like a 3-year-old does not qualify. Again, remember your game plan: Do not tangle. Do not try to change anyone. Just survive and leave without regrets or the need to make apologies. It’s really a simple scheme. “The whole goal is they don’t draw you into a conflict and you implode,” Bernstein says.