As a divorce lawyer in Charleston, South Carolina, with over 29 years of experience, I’ve listened to the frustrations of many parents who are dealing with a passive-aggressive co-parent. In my experience, passive-aggressive behavior is one of the most common problems divorcing parents experience. Unfortunately, a passive-aggressive parent turns mundane, routine events (such as pick-up and delivery of the children or coordinating the children’s healthcare) into an opportunity for conflict. I believe that the best family law attorneys not only understand the laws and the courts but also understand the emotional and psychological behaviors that cause conflict between divorcing couples and parents. By educating divorcing couples as to why someone is behaving poorly, divorce lawyers can educate their clients on how to deal with a problem parent such as a passive-aggressive co-parent. In this article, I’ll explain what is passive-aggressive co-parenting behavior, why some co-parents behave in a passive-aggressive manner, and the 6 best ways to deal with a passive-aggressive co-parent.
What is an Example of Passive-Aggressive Co-Parenting Behavior?
Some of the common characteristics of passive-aggressive behavior of co-parents include:
- Sarcasm toward the other parent
- Procrastination in cooperating with the other parent
- Stubbornness in cooperating with the other parent
- Repeated criticism of the other parent
- Sulking and/or pouting
- Ignoring communication from the other parent
- Repeatedly running late for visitation exchanges
- Repeatedly failing to accomplish requested tasks for which that parent is responsible
Here is a common scenario for the type of passive-aggressive behavior many divorced parents deal with on a regular basis. Let’s say that two parents share custody and that the family court has ordered them to communicate with each other concerning their child. Their child must regularly take medication that goes back and forth with the child between homes. One morning, the father drives the child to school and later discovers later that the child left the medication at the father’s house. The father then texts the mother that he can meet the mother halfway between homes after work to deliver the medication. The mother, however, doesn’t reply. A few hours later, the father sends a repeat text that he can meet to deliver the medication. Again, the mother doesn’t reply that day or even that night. By the next morning, the mother continues to ignore the father’s texts from the day before. At this point, the father is concerned that the child is now off the medication schedule and he becomes frustrated with the mother for ignoring his texts. Sound familiar? What should the father (or any parent for that matter) do in this scenario?
Why Are Some Co-Parents Passive-Aggressive?
In some situations, the parent intentionally wants the other parent to engage in conflict first. By acting passively-aggressively, they succeed in frustrating the other parent to the point where the other parent lashes out and becomes hostile. When the targeted parent behaves poorly out of sheer frustration, the hostile parent can then play the “victim” and justify their passive-aggressive behaviors, e.g., “I refuse to talk to my children’s father because he is always angry and he yells at me.”
For some passive-aggressive parents, their behaviors may be unintentional but instead may be learned behaviors from their own family and parents. For example, the problem parent may have grown up in a family environment where it wasn’t safe to assert themselves and where the honest expression of feelings was discouraged or punished. Another example is where the parent grew up in a family where one of their parents was dominant and the other was subservient. To avoid conflict with the dominant parent, the subservient parent may lie or keep secrets to get what they want out of the relationship. The result is that some children don’t develop healthy means of self-expressing and coping mechanisms to deal with everyday frustrations. Instead, they grow into adults who have learned to channel hostility and vindictiveness through passive-aggressive behaviors.
Some parents suffer from a passive-aggressive personality disorder (PAPD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) IV describes a passive-aggressive personality disorder. PAPD is a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.” In other words, passive-aggressive behavior is hostility expressed indirectly. For more information. Read my article on personality disorders and divorce.
How to Cope with & Respond to a Passive-Aggressive Co-Parent
Here are the 6 best ways to deal with a co-parent’s passive-aggressive behaviors:
1. Stay calm. If you lose your cool, you will reinforce the other parent’s passive-aggressive behavior by making them feel as if they have won. In other words, don’t reward the passive-aggressive co-parent by acting out.
2. Set and keep limits – Unfortunately, tolerating passive aggression usually encourages the negative behavior to continue and to intensify. Therefore, you must set and keep limits in response to co-parent’s passive-aggressive behaviors. Oftentimes, the “limits” I’m referring to are set out in family court orders such as parenting schedules, informing each parent of medical treatment, or required communication between parents. In the scenario I described above, the father should remind the mother of her court-ordered obligation of both parents to timely respond to each other’s communications about the child. Additionally, if the problem continues, the father should inform the mother that although he wishes to avoid conflict, he will turn the situation over to his lawyer if the mother continues to ignore him. If the problem persists, the father should follow through to keep those limits in place by contacting his lawyer. Sometimes, a letter from your lawyer to the problem parent may be enough to avoid returning to court.
3. Be Assertive but not combative – Being assertive doesn’t mean being disrespectful or hostile. Remember that this is a power struggle that you will lose if you lose your cool. After all, the end-game for the passive-aggressive parent is for you to blow your stack first. Don’t go on a personal attack against the problem parent and don’t pour over the history of the problems you’ve had with them. Be clear and business-like in your communications and stick to the issue at hand.
4. Avoid tit-for-tat – It is only natural that you may feel the urge to “strike back.” However, striking back only escalates the other parent’s passive-aggressive behaviors and fuels their frequent claims that they are a “victim” of your aggression. Be prepared for the passive-aggressive parent to try to suck you into more conflict. Take for example the scenario I described above. Let’s say that after being ignored, the father reminds the mother of her obligation to communicate and proposes one final time to meet the mother to deliver the child’s medicine. The mother finally texts back to the father “I knew it would be a problem and you would not bring the medicine so I made other arrangements.” By her response, the mother is trying to portray herself (and the child) as a “victim” of the father, to insinuate that the father is “bad,” and to bait the father into an argument. Understandably, the father may be frustrated and angered by the mother’s poor behavior and feel the need to attack. Here, the father could respond by indicating that if the mother will communicate in the future, then he will work with her to solve the problem. Otherwise, the father could choose to let the conversation, and the potential for conflict, end there without a response. Either way, the father should let the issue go at that point because the true concern (does the child have medicine) has been resolved.
5. Don’t try to fix the other parent – As a divorced parent, it isn’t your role to somehow cure the other parent of their passive-aggressive behaviors. The reasons for passive aggressiveness can be complicated and deeply ingrained in the other parent’s personality. More than likely, the problem parent will perceive any attempt you make to “help” them as an attack on them which will lead to more conflict and frustration. Whether they change on their own or seek professional help is entirely up to them and out of your hands. Don’t focus on changing them; focus on how to respond to their behaviors.
6. Set a good example for your children – Although you can’t control how your ex-spouse behaves, you can teach your children how mature adults should behave. Don’t criticize your ex. Rather, teach your children effective communication and relationship skills.
Will Taking a Passive-Aggressive Co-Parent to Family Court Make the Parent Stop or Change?
Some family court lawyers’ “go-to” advice for dealing with a difficult co-parent is to haul the problem parent into court. Family court intervention may be the solution in extreme cases where the parent’s behavior is harming the children. However, in other cases, South Carolina’s family courts have repeatedly expressed their unwillingness to change or modify custodial arrangements simply because parents don’t get along with each other. Also, dragging the other parent into court may have the effect of making their behaviors worse and, in turn, making matters harder for your children.
Final Thoughts on Dealing with a Passive-Aggressive Parent
Even if you follow the four ways I’ve suggested to deal with passive-aggressive behavior, the bottom line is that it is never easy. For many parents, it is a constant, ongoing, and exhausting process. Oftentimes, once you’ve learned to deal with a set of passive-aggressive behaviors, some problem co-parents will find newer, more vindictive ways to behave. No matter what happens, it is important that you don’t let the passive-aggressive parent control you by turning you into a person or parent that you don’t want to be. In the end, the only way to avoid losing is not to play the game.