- A common complaint from partners is that the other is passive, doesn't initiate, and needs to step up.
- A passive partner may see the relationship in traditional terms, avoid conflict, or feel or neglected.
- Changing patterns means addressing underlying problems, crafting win-win compromises, and getting help.
I see many couples where in the first session, a frustrated partner complains: “My husband/boyfriend never initiates or follows through; I feel like I do the heavy lifting; he takes a lax attitude with the kids: we’re not working together as a team.”
“Have you heard this before?” I ask. He has. “Is this true?” Sometimes there is some quibbling over details—about the time he initiated a date night last year, how he does usually help out with the kids at bedtime—but yes, fortunately, the couple isn’t arguing about whose version of reality is right.
What’s surprising is that in contrast to these complaints, these same men are often very proactive in their jobs—they’re managers and go-getters. What’s going on here? Here are a few common causes that I’ve seen over the years:
They think in terms of traditional sexist roles. “I work hard all day, and when I come home, I want to relax.” Often this stance was modeled by their parents and embedded in a family or ethnic culture where one partner is in charge of the inside—home and kids—while the other, usually the man, deals with the outside—the work world, maybe the lawn, the car. Or sometimes, they grew up in a family where men and boys were simply spoiled, and the women did the heavy lifting.
These expectations can especially create problems when their partner works part-time or stays home to care for the children—I’m working hard all day; what are you doing? If both partners work full-time, feelings that “This is unfair!” can quickly lead to butting heads and resentments.
They have felt criticized, dismissed, and given up. Here, the guy says that whenever he’s stepped up and initiated something, he’s always met with resistance or criticism; he’s feeling dismissed or micromanaged and has simply stopped trying. He adopts a “Fine, do it your way” attitude.
The relationship is out of balance. A variation of the above where the guy feels he is not getting what he needs—more appreciation, more affection, more attention—and has pulled back, checked out: “You don’t give me what I need, so I won’t give you what you need.” This is trench warfare, a blink contest with each waiting for the other to make a move.
They’re afraid of conflict. While the other causes center on the relationship, this is more about personality. Just thinking about initiating gets the guy anxious about possible conflict or upset—their partner is going to be angry or unhappy; there’s going to be an argument—so they hold back. And this same anxiety is triggered when their partner is suggesting or doing something they don’t like. They either go along with and then periodically blow up over something minor or become passive-aggressive and express their anger by “forgetting” or doing what the partner wants but at their own slow pace.
While such men often seem more proactive on the job, actually, they’re not; the same anxiety is present. They’re not initiating but avoiding conflict by only doing what those above them are telling them to do.
They have attention deficit disorder (ADHD). Some common symptoms of adults with ADHD are procrastination, forgetting, starting things, and not finishing them. As a result, their partners feel like the guy is unreliable, not a team player, and they’re having to do the heavy lifting.
Changing the Pattern
Changing these behavioral patterns means focusing on these underlying drivers. If the relationship is out of balance, it’s time to discuss ways for both partners to get more of what they need. If one partner feels criticized, the other person doesn’t need to constantly bite their lip but be more careful not to sound so dismissive or controlling.
If the problem is about roles, values, and expectations, the couple needs to work towards win-win compromises where they each let go of getting their way and are each willing to bend because they care about the other person. If it is about fear of conflict or ADHD, these are individual core issues—Achilles heels—that usually impact the relationship and other aspects of everyday life. Time to admit it’s a problem and tackle it head-on with some form of therapy and medication.
Like many relationship problems, passivity is undoubtedly a problem but also a solution—a learned response to another issue that is not being addressed. Can this response be unlearned? Sure, but it starts with acknowledging the problem and being willing to change the dynamics that hold it in place.
So, have those difficult conversations, take baby steps to change what you do, and stop going on autopilot. If you need help, seek support from a friend or a professional.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Facebook image: Netpixi/Shutterstock
Taibbi, R. (2017). Doing couple therapy, 2nd ed. New York: Guilford.