I’m not even an amateur psychologist, so there are likely other and better definitions and descriptions of passive-aggressive attitudes and behaviors, but I’ll attempt to describe the phenomenon briefly in my own terms.
Further, I’ll speak of “relational postures,” since that captures how people position themselves toward others–both their attitudes and attendant behaviors.
The phenomenon occurs when one adopts the relational posture of a victim and positions someone else as one who has brought injury or offense. It usually comes along with judged motives.
So, it is “passive” because one adopts the position of someone acted upon or injured. And it is “aggressive” because one grasps for power and control in this arrangement, in that one forces another person into the position of malevolent injurer.
A totally fabricated example:
I plan to go to the ballgame this evening, but my son takes the car to the movies with his friends. When he returns home, I sulk with wounded self-pity and ask him where’s he’s been. He says he’s been to the movies with his friends.
I reply, “Look, I know that you don’t care about anyone but yourself and you certainly don’t care about me, so next time the whim strikes you to take the car, can you please check with me so that you don’t ruin my evening again? I really wanted to go to the ballgame, but it seems that while everyone else around here can do whatever they want, I never get to do things I want to do!”
Now, in this scenario, I play the part of self-pitying and injured victim, and I put my son into the role of a person who is cold-hearted toward me and our family, one who behaves recklessly with regard to the rest of us.
So, I am “passive,” because I have suffered an injustice.
But to behave this way is also violently aggressive. My son did not have evil motives in going to the movies, so far as I know, and he certainly didn’t mean any harm to me. By the way, he’s an incredibly caring person and happily adjusts his own plans based on what the rest of us are doing. But I am violent in that I begin by imputing to him evil motives without question.
I violently put my son into the position of an aggressor. He did not merely go to the movies with his friends. He harmed me, behaving thoughtlessly and with complete disregard for anyone else’s concerns.
There are better ways of handling such situations, and that’s precisely the point. But this is just to get the exploration started.