Passive violence: deep wounds that look superficial

Passive violence: deep wounds that look superficial

Last update: 07 December, 2017

Passive violence seems almost paradoxical. Violence makes us think “active”, so in principle, they would be two incompatible ideas. But in everyday life we do ​​come up against people who, without raising their voices or using hurtful words, make us feel attacked. The victim of passive violence feels a vague, hard-to-pinpoint kind of pain.

“There are only two forces in the world, the sword and the spirit. In the long run the sword will always be conquered by the spirit”.

-Napoleon Bonaparte-

Passive violence or passive aggressive attitudes are the result of an inability to resolve conflict with authority, in one or several of its various manifestations, or with an adverse situation. There is a feeling of helplessness or defenselessness that becomes resignation. But that resignation is full of anger and frustration, which will show up eventually in some form.

Passive violence in daily scenarios 

The most obvious examples of passive violence are with teens. Their father or mother tells them to clean up their room, for example, and they respond with something like, “I’ll do it now!” Then they never do.

a sad teen at the computer

It’s also common with little kids. They throw a tantrum and if you don’t give in, they throw themselves around to hurt themselves. Or later they break an expensive vase “without meaning to.”

With adults, of course, there are also thousands of examples of passive violence. When you talk to someone and they pretend they didn’t hear. Or when they give you a scathing critique, disguised as advice or a suggestion. Or when they put you between a rock and a hard place and kindly ask you to decide. And you know more examples!

Passive violence and authority

In general, passive violence grows in situations that involve power dynamics. It is precisely that power that prevents or limits the expression of aggressive feelings. That’s why they turn to fake deference, which then translates into passive violence.

a man, victim of passive violence, at sunrise

Authority figures are often a victim of passive violence as well. Of course parents, but also bosses, teachers, doctors, etc. Sometimes they don’t formally hold a position of power, but they have that role over the other person. Like when one person in a relationship has more control or influence.

These power figures may also cause instances of passive violence. They know that those who are hierarchically below them don’t have full freedom to react to their behavior. Like when the boss asks you to work just one hour extra each day, to help everyone out. Or when your partner says he better help you because you can’t do it by yourself.

Passive violence is exercised by generating guilt, denying, humiliating or using the other, albeit indirectly. Sometimes it is very difficult to detect because it’s usually wrapped in soft speech and good manners. It is almost never conscious.

The effect of passive violence in social circles

Many passive violence behaviors are transmitted and nurtured in our society. Like when you go down the street and a homeless person asks for money. Sometimes you don’t want to or can’t help. And then the homeless person says “God bless you.” Here, he may not really want God to bless you, but the opposite. And that’s the message he gives you between the lines.

Explicit or passive violent behaviors generate responses in the same way. The stressed boss only forces some of her employees to stay late. An authoritarian teacher causes bad behavior, whether openly or not. The controlling mother may raise troubled children. A politician who buys votes gives people excuses to not pay taxes.


a boss talking to his employess

The most harmful thing about passive violence is that, by not being explicit, they cause confusion and aren’t obvious. When you discipline your teenager for not obeying you, he says “I told you I’m doing it!” If you tell your boss that his evaluation is unfair, he will probably lecture you about discipline and efficiency. And your partner may feel victimized or genuinely surprised when you tell them they are treating you like you’re stupid.

We must learn to put an end to these manipulative actions. We must deal with conflicts so that won’t create or feed this type of violence. That doesn’t mean you say everything that crosses your mind without filtering it. It is simply about improving our ability to communicate, clearly and calmly.



This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.