How do you draw boundaries with an emotionally immature/passive aggressive spouse?

I thought I was finished with my emotional maturity series, but a wonderful question came in to the blog this week that I thought it was worth running!


I was wondering if you knew of any resources for the spouses of emotionally immature / passive aggressive / avoidant people (I realize that’s a lot of problems at once, but they seem to go together a fair bit).

There seem to be so few resources available, yet this is very difficult to live with without wondering if YOU’RE the crazy one. Keeping perspective and motivation day after day isn’t easy. They tell you you expect too much. That they’re “doing their best”. They feel like the victim of some cruel tyrant. And all you’re asking for is to connect and deal with problems like adults.

A lot of marriage books/courses are aimed at couples where both partners are working to make the marriage better. But you need a whole different game plan when your spouse is passive aggressive and immature. One with very strict boundaries (a la the Boundaries in Marriage book – a very helpful read).

This issue is the silent killer of marriages. The passive aggressive/immature spouse is often easy going and pleasant AS LONG AS NOTHING IS REQUIRED OF THEM. People outside the marriage think they’re so “nice”. When you try to explain it to someone whose spouse isn’t PA/immature, they’re mystified by why you’re making such a big deal out if it. “All spouses are difficult sometimes – you just need to talk it out,” they say, not understanding that a PA spouse will literally refuse to discuss things. They stonewall and get quickly more uncooperative the more you try to appeal to them. If you try to explain to others, people tell you to be grateful because “at least he isn’t doing “______” (insert obvious bad behaviour here). The sins of omission can be as damaging as the sins of commission but it’s very hard to convince others who haven’t experienced it.

What do you do if you don’t have a degree in psychology to deal with your spouse’s manipulation? Are there counselors specifically trained in this? We’ve tried seeing counselors in the past, but my spouse sheds a few tears over their behaviour and the experiences in his childhood that caused it, everyone feels we’ve made progress… but then NOTHING CHANGES. The next time an issue comes up they stonewall, become rude and dismissive and say they’re just too “busy” or “tired” to deal with it right now. When I ask “ok, when is a good time to deal with this” they get angry and say they “can’t name a specific time”. If we could afford to pay to see a counselor every week for the rest of our lives, maybe that would help (they behave much better when someone else is watching), but we can’t. Plus, since they DO behave much better when someone else’s eye is on them, the counselor thinks “oh great – they’re cured” and sends us on our way with a cheery wave. And then my spouse spirals back down into their passive aggression and avoidance.

I’ve decided I need to stand up and say “enough” but I expect it will bring a lot of escalated behaviour from my spouse and a lot of going against my own ingrained habits. I’ve been dealing with this the wrong way for a decade, doing what I thought would help. So, as I try to live differently, it would be so helpful to have a support group, Christian counsellor who knows all the tricks up my spouse’s sleeve or even a book that gives practical strategies (for someone who’s spouse is not at ALL interested in changing and all you can do is change the way YOU act).

I actually don’t want to comment on this too much, because I’m hoping that some of you have some great ideas and great book suggestions. I honestly can’t get around to reading everything, because I’m so busy, but I often get the best recommendations from my readers.

And if you’re reading this post through email because you’re signed up to my daily emails, and you have some ideas, please click through and leave a comment!

But I will say that things won’t change without being willing to deal with escalated behaviors.

That’s the price of rocking the boat–things get rocky! Right now your marriage is in equilibrium. He’s happy because he doesn’t have to deal with the things that are bothering you, but you’re not happy.

The only way that he will change is if the pain of changing is less than the pain of staying the same. In other words, there has to be some pain in staying the same!

But people don’t usually change without a fight, so he may not be happy as you try to draw firmer boundaries of what you will put up with.

I will say that familiarizing yourself with attachment issues is likely wise. 

Often people act in counterproductive ways because they had terrible attachments to their parents and family of origin, and that affects how they act now. A great book to understand this better is How We Love. And, yes, Boundaries in Marriage is great, but if you find it doesn’t go far enough, try the companion book Changes that Heal. And Leslie Vernick’s How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong is also very good. 

Often we do things because of pain in our background that has never been fully processed or dealt with, and it’s just plain holding us back. It sounds like this is what’s going on with her husband. But it’s also so, so tiring to live with someone like that, so make sure you leave room for your own hobbies and for your own friends so you also get some healthy headspace, too.

But I’d like to throw this out to everyone else now: What should she do? Any book suggestions? Any key things for having counseling sessions be more productive? Let’s talk in the comments!

You may also enjoy:


How to Live with an Immature, Passive Aggressive Husband
Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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