The Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle

How unsuspecting adults get caught up in destructive passive aggressive dynamics
Posted Jul 24, 2013

describes and predicts the endless, repetitive cycles of conflict that occur when a passive aggressive individual succeeds in getting someone else to act out their anger for them.

helps observers to be able to look beyond behavior and better understand what is occurring beneath the surface.

how passive aggressive behaviors can so-suddenly provoke relationship-damaging reactions in unsuspecting adults.

Stage 1: The Self-Concept & Irrational Beliefs of the Passive Aggressive Person

has developed the belief that the direct expression of anger is dangerous and needs to be avoided.

conceal his anger behind a facade of infuriating passive aggressive behaviors

proud of his ability to control anger and to remain rational and calm during conflict situations. He feels smart and clever about his ability to devise various ways to get back at others indirectly and without their knowledge.

Stage 2: The Stressful Incident

the request often activates irrational beliefs, based on early life experiences

I’ll get back at her and she’ll never even see it coming.

ordinary, everyday requests from authority figures often trigger angry responses based on such irrational beliefs.

Instead of expressing these angry thoughts aloud, however, the passive aggressive person reserves his feelings for the moment. He pushes them below the surface because he is guided by the powerful set of irrational beliefs that anger = unacceptable.

Stage 3: The Passive Aggressive Person’s Feelings

 The passive aggressive person has learned over the years to defend against his angry feelings by denying them and projecting them onto others.

feelings of anger are unacceptable to him, they are masked and expressed in passive aggressive behaviors.

Stage 4: The Passive Aggressive Person’s Behavior

both purposeful and intentional.

the passive-aggressive person derives genuine pleasure out of frustrating others.  They engage in a variety of behaviors designed to “get back at” or infuriate others, including:

• Denying feelings of anger

• Withdrawing and sulking

• Procrastinating

• Carrying out tasks inefficiently or unacceptably

• Exacting hidden revenge

successful in eliciting an angry response

Victim, has no awareness of the trap she is falling in to.

Stage 5: The Reactions of Others

In a stressful situation, the person who behaves passive aggressively will create feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness in a target.

If the target is unaware of this dynamic and acts on the feelings of anger, she will behave in uncharacteristic, relationship-damaging ways.

As is quite typical of a PACC, at first the victim remains calm, accommodating his procrastination and phony temporary compliance.

Begins to feel more agitated, though she continues her polite, assertive manner.

irritation becomes apparent in the form of the sarcasm in her response. For adults, sarcasm is often a red flag that they have begun to be caught up in a Conflict Cycle and are beginning to mirror a perpetrators Behavior behaviors.

this could have been a good time for the teacher to

  • check her own emotions,
  • think about what was happening beneath the surface, and
  • disengage from the dynamic

Element of surprise the disaster happens and one is not prepared to acknowledge the hidden trap.

before she even knew it, she heard the clamor of banging desks, a student crying out in pain after having his foot run over by a heavy lunch cart, and a vase of flowers shattered all over the floor.

Reactions of an unsuspecting victim

the perpetrator asserts his control

She reacted in an instant, in frustration and with anger,

The perpetrator, still in perfect control of his emotions, feigns shock.

He apologizes to the victim, using appropriate words while also sending a clear, unstated message:

  • I don’t know why you got so angry. It was just a mistake.
  • what you did was scary. I don’t like to have someone blow up at me.
  • I don’t deserve to be yelled at (in front of my peers)
  • I think you overreacted to this situation and mistreated me.
  • Don’t you believe you owe me an apology?

 The victim’s reaction

  • The victim, immediately feeling guilty about the temper tantrum, also
  • feels embarrassed to have been observed in the moment by her colleague. She
  • ends up apologizing profusely. When this happens,
  • perpetrator reluctantly accepts the apology, but in the meantime,
  • Perpetrators deep-rooted beliefs about the danger of anger have been confirmed.


The only thing that is truly resolved in this situation is that the destructive interpersonal relationship between victim and perpetrator

 The majority of victims involved in daily interactions with passive aggressive individuals are ultimately beaten down by the relationship.

Most end up feeling

  • confused,
  • angry,
  • guilty, and
  • doubtful about the stability of their own mental health.

    Understanding and insight into the repetitive nature of the Passive Aggressive Conflict Cycle can help adults disengage from destructive conflicts and choose relationship-building responses.


Author: charlesburchfield

I am an artist working primarily with collage.

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