Q: I have a neighbor that I struggle to get along with—we’ll call her Heather. I met Heather when we first moved into our neighborhood a few months ago. She and her husband live across the street and came to say hi while my girlfriend and I were carrying boxes into our house. Her husband didn’t talk much (and still doesn’t), but right off the bat, Heather made some rather rude comments about the condition of our furniture. We sort of chuckled awkwardly and went back to moving in, but still, her passive-aggressive remarks come out every time we see her. 

Heather walks her dog by our house in the mornings, and last week, she stopped to talk to my girlfriend, who was watering the flowerbed. During the conversation, Heather made a point to gesture toward the California license plate on our car and told us to go back to where we came from. When my girlfriend didn’t laugh, apparently Heather told her that “Millenials really are sensitive” and walked off. 

I know I wasn’t there for the whole conversation, but I’ve seen the way Heather talks whenever she’s around us. It’s not behavior I want to have to put up with, especially with all the stress we have going on with relocating. How can I keep someone’s passive-aggressive behavior from affecting me? 

A: This is a difficult situation for you to be in—dealing with passive-aggressive behavior isn’t always easy, but it is possible. If you’re looking to keep someone’s passive-aggressive behavior from bothering you, it might be helpful to understand a bit more about why they’re acting the way that they are. People may become passive-aggressive as a defense mechanism because they feel threatened. Perhaps your house, your car, or your relationship makes Heather feel insecure—so she attempts to put you down verbally in an attempt to “level the playing field” in her mind. 

It’s a tactic used by covert narcissists, in particular. It may be particularly angering to deal with, especially when you’re hoping to connect with someone and instead they’re closing the door to that possibility. Keep in mind that if you react similarly, she may use that as ammunition against you, depicting you as the instigator, which is a form of gaslighting

For you and your partner’s sake (as well as your neighborly relations), you have several options. Consider whether one or both of you would benefit from:

  • Politely talking to Heather about the comments that she’s made that have bothered you. She may deny any wrongdoing, but instead of harboring resentment and letting her spoil such a major life transition, you’ll at least have done your part to clear the air. Just be sure to keep your temper steady when you broach that conversation. 
  • Avoiding conversations with Heather, especially if attempts to reconcile your feelings with her passive-aggressive behavior fail. It’s helpful (and very beneficial for our mental health) to be on good terms with our neighbors, but constantly enduring toxic interactions with someone in your community is draining and unhealthy. You don’t have to interact with Heather; and perhaps with a little space, you’ll find it easier to let go of the frustration you feel about her comments. 
  • Connecting with a therapist or counselor about adjusting to a new home and all the stress that comes along with moving. Relocating to a new living space often means we have more to unpack than just boxes—researchers have found that our brains literally need time to make sense of it all. A life coach, family therapist, or relationship counselor could help you and your partner learn new coping strategies and communication methods that eliminate tension and promote empathy. 
  • Making an effort to connect with others in your neighborhood and greater community. A thriving social network enriches your quality of life, with studies indicating it offers a myriad of mental and physical benefits. To start forming new connections, consider your interests, whether they’re personal hobbies or ways to give back to your community. You may find local clubs or organizations that can kickstart your new friend group. Sites like Meetup, Facebook, and Reddit all offer pages designed to put you in touch with others who share your goals and interests. 

Whatever you may think you know about Heather and why she behaves the way that she does toward you and your partner, she’s still only a very small part of the big changes that you’re adjusting to. She can only ruin your new neighborhood if you let her. There are other neighbors around you who won’t be passive-aggressive, and those new connections will likely help you let go of Heather’s comments in time.