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Being Passive

This is part of a series of blogs which look at patterns of communication in relationships. Some common, but unhealthy patterns include being openly confrontational, avoiding conflict, being passive and being passive aggressive. This includes all our relationships, not just with romantic partners. 

What is meant by being passive?

Being passive is the opposite of being confrontational. We give up what we want and acquiesce to whatever requests or demands are presented by those around us. People might see us as easygoing, nice, or a pushover – which can lead to feeling that what we need or think doesn’t matter. We lose our voice. This can include decisions, ideas, and planning, as well as even things like topics of conversations. 

It’s nice to be nice?!

It’s great for people to see us as easy going and nice, (calm, zen even!) isn’t it?  It’s great to be highly attuned to the needs of others. BUT too much of this can make our lives and our relationships difficult. We can start to take the blame onto ourselves to avoid conflict – when it is actually  not our fault.  “You’re right, I’m sorry, it’s my fault. I should have…” we stammer – hoping by doing so, we will keep the peace. We will get our needs met for belonging, harmony and connection. But in so doing, we run the risk of abandoning our own needs and preferences. We shape ourselves to suit others – whereas true intimacy depends on being able to know each other.  When we don’t share our true feelings and desires for fear of conflict, we deny those around us the opportunity to really get to know us. 

Where does passive behaviour come from?

Passivity in relationships usually has deep roots. It can come from parents who were too controlling, or who didn’t let you make our own mistakes and learn. Or a parent who only loved us if we were ‘good’, teaching us that we only have worth if we please others – “smile, be nice, don’t cause us any trouble.”


Over time being passive can lead to resentment, and to our becoming disconnected from our own feelings and needs. We are being lazy in the relationship and leaving everything to the other person, even the emotional work, which can start to feel like quite the burden for them. We can tend to avoid difficult things, things that make us feel uncomfortable. Perhaps we don’t sit with a crying or upset partner or friend, just being there for them or helping them find ways forward. We tend to back off, but we call it ‘giving them space’, and hope they get over it. At which point we’ll show up again, pretending things are fine and the conflict never happened. 

Some signs of passive behaviour

  1. We mumble and don’t finish sentences –  we have a tendency to trail off mid-response when asked a question. Perhaps we aren’t really sure of your opinion, or it feels too much effort to think it through and explain. 
  2. We often say “Whatever you think!”or “I don’t mind”  which is a way to deflect having to make choices or be responsible for anything. 
  3. We take on the habits, the views and interests of the other person  – even the way we dress can depend on who we are with, who we are dating. 
  4. We rarely say NO. Saying no requires taking a stand, and taking responsibility for that stand. This may mean in dating situations, we sometimes feel like things are going too fast. When we don’t say no, we set no boundaries, and are caught up in someone else’s current. 
  5. We want our friends or partner or family members to make decisions for us. 
  6. We leave the other person to do the things they want to – “live and let live” is a good philosophy, but too much of this can lead to a rift, a lack of real interest in them. Research clearly shows that healthy relationships need displays of support. A study gave participants ten minutes to do a tutorial on digital photography, during which they received texts they thought were from their partners in another room. The participants who received texts showing interest, support, and validation for their experience (active response) rated their relationships as better than the participants who just received texts that didn’t really comment on what they were attempting to do (passive response). 

Favourite resources

These are some of my favourite writers and speakers about communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also: 


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541

See also: Building strong relationshipsCommunication StylesCriticism and contempt