Passive Aggression In Divorce & Co-Parenting

There is no questioning that passive aggression makes the process of separation, divorce and co-parenting longer, harder and more painful than it needs to be. Gaining agreement on any issue with someone who is passive aggressive is close to impossible and keeping your family out of the court system may be inevitable.

Chances are, if your ex-partner is employing passive aggressive tactics now you’re separated/divorcing/divorced, he/she was doing so when you were together so you’d think the strategies and behaviours would be easy to spot. But that’s not always the case. There is a mismatch between what they say, and what they actually do and it’s easy to get sucked in to believing the words, hoping that this time they’re true, rather than accepting the reality of the behaviour.

Passive aggressive people appear calm and congenial (they avoid showing anger or strong emotion - so of course they appear calm ffs!) are often charming, and well liked by others who aren’t so close to them. These are the “others” who wonder what the hell you’re talking about when you complain about their manipulative, dismissive, obstructive behaviour… sometimes to the point where you question if in fact you’re wrong. Surely, it’s not that bad? Maybe you are (as your ex- will have told you countless times) crazy or imagining it?

STOP right there! If you’re questioning whether you’re crazy, there’s a more than fair chance that you’re not.Being on the receiving end of passive aggression over an extended period of time messes with your head.

So how do you know if you’re going mad or your ex actually is passive aggressive? What is passive aggression and how do you recognise it? Below is a guide to how passive aggression shows up in relationships, during divorce and co-parenting that will help you get it a little straighter.

PROCRASTINATION: attempting to control a situation through avoidance or unreasonable delays. Taking soooooooo long to complete a task, sign a form or respond to a request.

FORGETTING: intentionally “forgetting” (to attend parent-teacher conferences, take the kids to the swimming lessons you’ve paid for or the birthday party your child has been invited to attend; the important document you’ve asked him / her to bring you) to avoid responsibility or avoid tasks, and to retain a degree of control. “Oh sorry. I forgot.”

LATENESS: constantly being late (to pick up or drop off the kids, to meetings with you or mediators, school counsellors, to sporting or other event for the kids) or or intentionally going so slow as to make others (usually you or the kids) late. It’s a half-arsed way to say no, I don’t want to go / take you there / be there / take the kids there.

INTENTIONAL INEPTNESS: deliberately performing tasks so poorly they need to be re-done or deliberately failing. Returning a bunch of “clean” clothes bundled in with the smelly sports kit that he/she “forgot” to wash.

DEAFNESS / BLINDNESS: pretending not to see, hear or understand reasonable requests. Underlying this is the superiority of passive aggression: “you can’t tell me what to do” and is similar to the silent treatment. It’s all about POWER.

AMBIGUITY: avoid making a commitment or firm decision and never clearly saying what he/she really wants or means. BUT… the behaviour tells the truth which is an underlying and angry “NO”. Fence sitting or refusing to be pinned down allows them to retain control while also blaming (see below) you for being a control freak. Having insisted on a the children spending time with him/her, when you enforce the parenting agreement you are labelled as controlling.

THE SILENT TREATMENT & WITHHOLDING: a total refusal to engage or respond either verbally or in writing. Refusing to return phone calls, answer the phone when the kids are with him/her and you ring to speak to them, or respond to emails / texts. Withholding - either communication by engaging in silence, financial support by not paying what is due, or being emotionally distant with the children - is another form of passively expressing anger and attempting to assert power. It’s a “F%$&* you! I don’t have to do what you say!”

BEING OBSTRUCTIVE or ARGUMENTATIVE: arguing, blocking, stonewalling and disagreeing with you but, unable to articulate assertively what they feel, want or need, a passive aggressive ex will offer no alternative solutions or ideas to the issue you are trying to resolve. Another version of saying “NO.”

BLAMING, EXCUSES, PLAYING THE VICTIM: for the passive aggressive, everything is always someone else’s fault, including the divorce (i.e. it’s 100% your fault). Someone else (i.e. you, the children) is responsible for his/her unhappiness or failure. Constantly making excuses for themselves and their behaviour; minimising or failing to see or understand the consequences or impact, they blame everyone else, the universe or fate.

DENIAL & SHUTTING DOWN: insisting there’s “no problem” or “nothing wrong” when clearly, there is. Denying they are behaving passive-aggressively (or not even realising they are!). Walking away, refusing to discuss or talk things over. Does “Fine. Whatever!” sound familiar?

RESENTMENT: they are resentful of the demands of others and claim they never having time for themselves.

COMPLAINTS: of unfairness or injustice; that the world is against them and they are misunderstood and unappreciated (“you don’t understand how hard it is for me” or “my boss / the world / you / the court system has it in for me”).

PAY BACK: playing tit for tat or keeping an emotional score-card and seeking revenge on you or even the kids is common. If your ex- perceives he/she has been slighted, they will find a way to seek revenge even if you don’t realise it’s been done.

BACKHANDED COMPLIMENTS: criticism disguised as compliments (“you’re doing really well as a single Mum for someone with your intelligence”) or disguised insults (“you look almost as good as you did when we met”)

SABOTAGE: “accidentally”causing hurt or harm, especially to things that are special or important to you (or sadly, to the children). Giving away something of yours, including personal / private information (“Oh, didn’t you want me to give your address to him/her?”)

SCORNFUL and CRITICAL of AUTHORITY: no-one else knows as much as they do, is as intelligent or smart as they are (including you, the lawyers, the family court).

And, what I call the “SMILING ASSASSIN”– congenially agreeing to requests or plans “Yep, sure. That’s fine.” (mostly to stop the discussion and get you to shut up) then simply failing to follow through with the “agreed” action but simply doing whatever he / she wanted in the first place.

For the passive aggressive, these behaviours are employed to help them avoid conflict and any overt expression of fear or anger. They are an indirect way of saying “NO”.

Understanding the why behind the behaviour and learning to recognise it for what it is, are the first steps toward assertively dealing with it and enabling your family to move forward.

(PS: More from me on passive-aggressive ex-partners coming soon over on Beanstalk Mums)

Sallyanne Hartnell