Dear Carolyn:

Help! Over the years I've come to realize that I am textbook passive-aggressive. I grumble under my breath when my boyfriend doesn't do the dishes on his dish night, I fantasize of telling my boss that his sweaty underwear drying in his office is NOT considered interior decorating, and I quietly roll my eyes during the two-hour calls from my best friend about her umpteenth breakup with her BF this month.

Grrr, I'm becoming bitter and that sucks. I know I'm not being fair to all these people by not letting them into my head (boss aside, eck!). But how do I do that? And how do I change my thinking?

Every time I think of what I want to say, it comes out so mean! Like, "We just saw a roach in the apartment, don't you think you should do the dishes?" Some of these lines have definitely flown out of my mouth before, which obviously hasn't gone over well and now just makes me more hesitant to speak up.

Quietly P'd Off

"Textbook passive-aggressive" is someone who avoids taking a direct stand and instead makes his point through inaction or procrastination.

Meaning, the real case study in your household might be your boyfriend, declaring his hostility to you and your "dish night" by leaving the plate-cleaning job to the bugs.

Your grumbling under your breath or simmering until you get mean is just textbook bad communication.

The remedy for which is to focus on what you feel as opposed to the effect you're afraid you might have. Tiptoeing around the consequences may make sense for a job -- presumably you do need to remain employed, even if disgustedly so -- but not for a relationship that's rooted in personal choice. If all it would take to put your relationship in jeopardy is to tell your boyfriend that it makes you angry when he ignores the dishes, then maybe that's a relationship that ought to come to an end.

You don't want to trample on anyone's feelings, either, for sure.

That's why you err on the side of kindness. Don't call people names or make fun of their noses, and, when in doubt, share feelings and not accusations.

But straining to withhold your own feelings is equally bad for your relationships -- and in an insidious way. By not revealing your frustration with your friend, for example, you grow distant from her without giving her a chance to remedy anything. Think how common it is for people to feel "blindsided" by criticisms or breakups.

You owe it to your intimates to let them know who it is they're living with, talking to, trusting with their dull and repetitive secrets. So share your feelings with them. It may take a while before you get a sense of how much is too much, but you have to expect that when you're correcting years of sharing too little.

Fortunately, good relationships are self-correcting; it's when your relationship sustains itself -- when you don't have to micromanage every word you say and every possible consequence, when you and your partner are happy with what you share and how much -- that you'll know you're in a romance or friendship for keeps. Until then, be patient. And brave.

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