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Rules of enragement: passive-aggressiveness reaches new level of pettiness

Passive-aggressiveness has reached a new level of pettiness in modern relationships. Meadhbh McGrath reports from the front lines of the couples' cold war


Trump card: Donald Trump changed all of Melania’s decorating plans before she moved into the White House. Photo: Getty Images

Trump card: Donald Trump changed all of Melania’s decorating plans before she moved into the White House. Photo: Getty Images

Trump card: Donald Trump changed all of Melania’s decorating plans before she moved into the White House. Photo: Getty Images

Donald and Melania Trump may not have much in common with the average couple, but there is one conflict they share with the rest of us: when it comes to matters of home decor, they don't see eye to eye.

According to a recent report from the New York Times, in the months before she joined her husband at the White House, Melania had selected furniture for their residence that reflected her taste in "clean, modern lines". However, by the time she arrived, she discovered that the President had swapped out her choices in favour of pieces in the opulent style of Louis XIV that he prefers.

While on an admittedly grander scale than a typical marriage, this tension in the Trump household is surprisingly relatable. It's also an example of how the battlefield of modern relationships has evolved. We're far beyond the pointed-notes-on-the-fridge stage, and well past the days of 'Vaguebooking' (posting social media updates that prompt followers to beg for elaboration, e.g. "I just can't believe some people", "How could he do this?").

Passive-aggressive behaviour has reached a new level of pettiness, where replacing someone's streamlined sectional sofas with a gaudy gilded cabriole while they're out marks a strategic offence.


Donald and Melania may not be anyone's example of #relationshipgoals, but in a milder form, passive-aggressive behaviour can act as an effective means of getting your message across while staving off a major blow-out.

"The term 'passive-aggressive' refers to a particular manifestation of aggression, and doesn't necessarily specify whether the behaviour is healthy and constructive or pathological and destructive," says Dr Scott Wetzler, a clinical psychologist with the Montefiore Medical Centre in New York and the author of Living With The Passive-Aggressive Man. "There are many times when it makes sense for us to suppress our hostility or express it in indirect ways.

"Jokes are excellent ways to defuse tension and confrontation. Will it ever make sense for an individual to avoid confrontation, especially in a relationship with someone who is more powerful than them? The answer is oftentimes yes, that it makes sense to avoid confrontation, to be less assertive. The pathological manifestation of passive-aggression is when the behaviour is expressed clumsily, at which time it will generally elicit anger in response. That's the difference between a hostile joke and a funny joke. In this way, passive-aggressive behaviour can only be judged in the context of the interpersonal relationship."

All clear? Well here are the new hallmarks of passive-aggressiveness in relationships.

Cramping their style

That all-important business meeting is tomorrow, and your spouse has great sartorial ambitions for making an impression. Such a pity, then, when that windowpane check waistcoat ends up getting tossed in with the dry-cleaning the day before. It's for their own good, really. And then there's the surprise 'spring clean' when you enforce a wardrobe streamlining of all ill-fitting jeans, square-toed shoes and cargo shorts to be nobly donated to Oxfam (can't argue with a worthy cause). Likewise, rather than risk them heading to M&S on their own and doing unknown damage, you insist on going on "shopping dates" (see, date makes it sound fun - there might even be wine after).

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Shaping up

We all recognise the signs of FOPA (Fear Of Partner's Ageing): the terror in your spouse's eyes when you start buying shoes in Ecco, throw out that minidress from your first date or swap your fitted jeans for roomy chinos with a more forgiving waistband. While having a frank discussion about it is, obviously, out of the question, the pass-agg approach can help to nudge them in the right direction (of the cross-trainer, that is). It could be making the thoughtful gesture of leaving their running kit out in the hall so they don't have to scramble around for it after work, downloading a "highly recommended" activity tracker app on their phone, or delivering that most emotionally-loaded of gifts, the unsolicited gym membership - the modern-day equivalent of a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking, which will leave them sharpening their brightest smile and bleating out an "oh, you shouldn't have!".

Dishing the dirt

Chores will always be a source of tension in a relationship. Feel like you're doing the lion's share? How about loading up the dishwasher with all but the utensils, or doing the laundry without ironing or folding a thing? The trick is in leaving just little enough undone that your spouse will feel curmudgeonly to mention it, and thus decide to just do it for themselves the next time. Consider the playing field levelled.

Indulging friendly rivalry

Your partner has had the same haircut for 20 years and no matter how many times you show him David Beckham's Facebook posts or remark how good Jamie Dornan looks since he grew out that buzz-cut, he's not taking the hint. Time to take matters a step further: target his mates. "Are you going back to the same place? Why don't you ask Dave where he gets his hair cut? His always looks so good." Point made, yet not made.

Snubbing out dodgy pals

When you marry someone, their friends tend to become a part of your life too, for better or worse. But there are some people you just can't make room for. Sure, you can't stand that one boisterous old school friend of theirs, but sharing this with your partner would be tantamount to self-sabotage - plus roaring "not THEM again!" every time they show up only reflects poorly on you. The socially acceptable strategy? Conveniently "forgetting" to make reservations for that dinner you planned or deliberately not inviting them to a party, then claiming "oops, I forgot". Better to look absent-minded than plain rude.

Cooking up a storm

Forget meat and two veg - your spouse fancies themselves a bit of a Heston Blumenthal, and on those rare occasions when they dedicate themselves to a 'special dinner', your kitchen is transformed into the Fat Duck, save for the dry ice and hidden iPods. The food, however, is more school canteen than haute cuisine and you end up picking bits of caraway seeds out of your teeth all evening. How do you let them down gently? "Great soup! I didn't even taste the reindeer milk…" And when things fail spectacularly (again), instead of any old "I told you so", you gently ponder, "Were you surprised by the result?" Always said with a smile.

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