Passive-Aggressive Behavior: What Exactly Is It?
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By D. A. Wolf, Featured DM Blogger - October 11, 2013 - Updated March 30, 2017

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“Don’t be so passive-aggressive.”

How many times have we been on the receiving end of that remark? Then again, maybe we’ve said those words to someone else.

Passive-aggressive behavior is common in situations of escalating interpersonal conflict – as in the resentments that build during a marriage, that flare as we decide to separate, that continue through the divorcing process – and sadly, may remain for years, long after the divorce is final. And, more than likely, causing the divorce in the first place.

What Is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?

Shouldn’t we understand what this behavior involves and why it’s destructive in marriage, divorce, and parenting?

Passive-Aggressive Behavior is defined as

“the indirect expression of hostility, such as through procrastination, hostile jokes, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, or deliberate/repeated failure to accomplish requested tasks for which one is (often explicitly) responsible.”

In other words, it is an indirect response to feelings of anger or resentment. Those emotions reveal themselves where they aren’t expected and where they may not seem to make sense. For example, the passive-aggressive spouse or ex may habitually refuse to do what is asked, act out with disproportionate hostility, or respond with cynicism to seemingly unrelated remarks on your part.

Passive-Aggressive Behavior Red Flags

Are you unsure if what you’re seeing is a pattern of this kind of behavior, or just yourself or your ex on a bad couple of days?

The Mayo Clinic offers these red flags when it comes to identifying P/A patterns:

  • Resentment and opposition to the demands of others
  • Procrastination and intentional mistakes in response to others' demands
  • Cynical, sullen or hostile attitude
  • Frequent complaints about feeling underappreciated or cheated

Some of these behaviors may be especially confusing. They could seem benign, though the result is misunderstanding, not to mention a relationship in which communication grows more and more difficult. These behaviors might include forgetfulness (missing an appointment, “forgetting” to do what is asked), blaming the other person, and ambiguity. 

That last – ambiguity – is an important one. It’s a lack of clarity, a seeming disconnect in reactions, and it can drive you a little crazy as you wonder what you’re imagining and why some responses or obstructions come out of left field.

As this article at Divorce Support points out:

“… when it comes to the passive aggressive and how ambiguous they can be… they rarely mean what they say or say what they mean. The best judge of how a passive aggressive feels about an issue is how they act.”

Examples of Passive-Aggressive Behavior

Care for a few examples of passive-aggressive behavior?

Co-parenting can bring ex-spouses together on a regular basis, and exposing our kids to P/A behaviors sets a terrible example, as in:

He’s late with the support check for three months running. Rather than deal with the issue directly, field the new wife on the phone, you “return” the favor by accidentally making him wait to pick up the children, which in turn causes him to snarl and the kids to feel stressed.

Shouldn’t we try to find healthier ways to express ourselves and thereby, potentially, resolve conflict?

This kind of game playing, even if it’s not entirely conscious? Not cool, not mature, and more than a little passive-aggressive.

Another example?

He’s married the woman with whom he had the affair that ended your marriage. You “accidentally” schedule dentist appointments for the children on afternoons he has them, or you forget to cancel a play date their counting on when they’re in his charge. You “accidentally” forget to pay their cell phone bills, causing service interruptions when they want to talk to their dad. 

Your anger and hurt is causing you to act out in unhealthy ways, some of which may border on parental alienation.

When You Divorce a Someone Who is Passive Aggressive

It’s one thing to live with this kind of spouse, but when you divorce one, you may quickly find yourself swimming in a murky soup filled with mind games, costly legal maneuvers, and in general – high conflict.

In “Divorcing a Passive-Aggressive Spouse,” divorce expert Cathy Meyer reminds us:

“ When divorcing a passive aggressive, expect the process to take more time than is usually and to cost more than you had planned spending…”

Why is that the case? Here are a few examples of passive-aggressive behaviors during divorce that can quickly spiral you into high conflict

“ [The passive aggressive] will want to mediate… but then refuse to negotiate a divorce settlement. They will agree to a settlement then change their mind… Just like during the marriage you will expend a lot of energy on solving conflict with not much to show for your effort except wasted time and emotional stress…”

Other examples? Try attempts to undermine your authority with the kids, to alienate you from friends and family, to go for more custody than they want, not because they want it, but to make you squirm. It’s a form of punishment.

Why is This Behavior a Bad Idea?

So why should we worry about passive aggressive behavior?

Clearly, you’re in for a rough ride if you’re on the receiving end of these destabilizing behaviors. And don’t we think that spills out on the children?

What if divorce is behind us and we only see the ex-spouse when he picks up the kids or at some family event, but the behaviors manifest themselves in skirmishes over visitation, child support, ongoing legal actions, interference with your ability to work?

While passive aggressive behaviors do not constitute mental illness, as the Mayo Clinic reminds us:

“… passive-aggressive behavior can interfere with relationships and cause difficulties on the job.”

Granted, it takes two to resolve conflict, and much as you might wish the reality of a passive-aggressive ex away, the only behavior you can control is your own. From my personal experience (and a good deal of reading), I might suggest that you try not to engage and that you keep as much as possible in context. However, there may be times that’s not possible. Even so, remember - our children see and feel our tensions, and they learn from our examples, both good and bad.

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