Understanding passive aggression during divorce

When it comes to passive aggressive behavior, you may be the unfortunate target of your spouses hidden wrath (and you may be inadvertently reinforcing their poor behavior). You may even find yourself lashing out this way – some are appalled to realize that they have actually adopted the manipulative behaviors that were directed toward them in the first place. How can you deal with passive aggression when going through a divorce?

What is passive aggression?

Passive aggression is hidden and manipulative hostility under the guise of innocence or passivity. Outwardly, the passive aggressive will appear calm, especially in front of others, whilst inwardly their fury is building. Anger is almost inevitable during separation and divorce, and it’s important to manage it well, so understanding passive aggression and how it plays out will be helpful in keeping things moving and managing your emotions.

The NYU Medical Center defines a passive-aggressive person as someone who “may appear to comply or act appropriately, but actually behaves negatively and passively resists.”

“Passive-aggressive behavior is a learned response to handling confrontation,” says licensed professional counselor and life coach Dr. Ara Thomas-Brown. “It’s not something that usually surfaces in a certain situation, but rather becomes a behavioral pattern that a person may employ when feeling threatened, questioned, confronted, or powerless to assert their desires.”

She adds that those on the receiving end of negative attitudes, resistance, and stubbornness may end up feeling so frustrated that it increases their stress levels, as well as their own propensity to act on the frustration. For people using passive-aggression as a behavioral default, it makes life much more miserable for themselves because problems go unsolved, and recipients feel pushed away.

Passive-aggression has been described as an immature defense commonly found in adolescents as well as in those with addictions, personality or depressive disorders. For a teenager trying to embrace independence yet without the emotional and financial resources to manage that, responding to a parent’s or teacher’s authority through passive-aggressive means (e.g., “hold on,” “I didn’t hear you”) is developmentally accurate. Most people develop better coping skills as they mature, but there are often roots in childhood wounds, such as when a genuine authority figure wielded much power or when hiding anger became the norm. Later in life, this individual can’t own anger and perceives authority where it honestly doesn’t exist, much as Menninger described.

How to recognise passive aggressive behavior

Passive-aggression surfaces in everyday life. Passive-aggressive people are ambivalent and inconsistent in their character and behaviour, they can be awkward and uncomfortable to deal with. Anger will be verbally denied eg “I’m fine”. Often their anger builds but is rarely unleashed in a direct manner, however it is unleashed directly, although usually only in front of their victim(s).

The passive aggressive person may act forgetful in terms of getting things done or delay doing so / be late. If you point out a flaw, they will likely walk away or give you the silent treatment.  The passive aggressive person will almost always act the victim or martyr, twisting the situation to both to the victim and other parties. They don’t tend to ask directly for what they want, but hint and whine until you do it. They act as though they may be the kindest, friendliest person in the world but covertly stab you in the back.

Never will they admit the real motive behind their behavior and if you point out their behavior or accuse them, they will claim you are the bully (they are the victim, afterall).

How passive-aggression surfaces during divorce

The passive aggressive spouse will unlikely any take responsibility for any part in the downfall of the marriage, they may act forgetful and be obstructive (in a passive manner of course) in terms of getting things done such as are required for divorce proceedings and will act the victim.

During the separation and divorce process, passive aggression often arises through defying authority figures (such as judges, trained professionals, expert witnesses, or perceived authority figures, such as one’s spouse), and withholding child support, alimony, medical insurance, or other necessary information. They will probably play victim or martyr when talking to friends, family, mediators and attorneys. When all is said and done, the passive aggressive spouse will likely passively blame their partner for all life’s failings.

How to deal with passive-aggressive, manipulative behavior

The best way to deal with a passive aggressive person is to avoid them. Sadly, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do this when going through divorce and even after you may need to retain a relationship with your ex (eg if you have children).

While you cannot change another’s poor behavior, you don’t have to be what psychiatrist Martin Kantor calls a “participating victim” either. Kantor’s book “PassiveAggression: A Guide for the Therapist, the Patient, and the Victim” comprehensively explores the core causes, including dependency, control, competitive conflicts, cognitive-behavioral errors, and childhood roots.

It takes much cognitive-behavioral work to overcome pervasive passive-aggression so again, realize that while you can change your own behavior, it’s quite unlikely you will have much impact if your estranged husband/wife fits this description.

However, you can end the enabling:

  • Stop making a passive-aggressive person’s decisions and mitigating any consequences (stop doing things they should be doing), as this teaches them to play the dependent role and fosters codependency. Constructing watertight phrasing helps combat passive-aggressive behavior. Set artificial deadlines. Don’t back down no matter how much the person protests.
  • Confront gently armed with the facts. Decrease their waffling by asking attitudinal questions (a question that begins with “how” is good). The last thing you’ll get from such a person is a straight answer or a direct response (remember, they are ambivalent – their attitude and behavior towards you is conflicting) so get any promises in writing.
  • Reward good behavior. Yes, if you want a speedy divorce and simply to get things done, try to avoid confrontation and when they “do good”, swallow your pride and say thank you. Yes, it’s not easy – but it does get results.
  • Finally, realize that a person prone to passive-aggression;
    • Distorts much of what is heard (remember, they are manipulative).
    • Hears requests as demands (they are the victim, you are the bully).
    • Project and strive to save face (again, they play the victim/martyr).

Forget trying to change their passive aggressive and manipulative behavior, acknowledge good behavior and do what needs to be done to get things done (but don’t do everything for them).

During your divorce proceedings, get every agreement in writing and ideally witnessed (some official documents will require a notary anyway) – and if need be, hold conversations with an independent person present.

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How to choose a divorce lawyer that’s right for you

After divorce – getting back to the single life


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