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The Exhausted Woman
with Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC

How to Handle a Passive-Aggressive during Divorce

The usual hostility that divorce brings for individuals working through one is not as equally balanced when a passive-aggressive (PA) spouse is involved. Instead, the non-passive-aggressive person will appear to be irrationally raging over numerous accusations while the PA appears calm and rational. The PA’s outward emotionless demeanor may further aggravate the situation, but their inward fuming anger is really waiting to be unleashed.

Typical divorce strategies are ineffective when confronted with a PA. Their particular cycle of pushing away privately while pulling in publicly confuses a spouse and creates an environment of upheaval. Here are some typical ways a PA reacts to divorce, and what you may be able to do to ease the tension.

  1. Early Stage. Usually, the PA begins by saying they don’t want the divorce and will do anything to prevent it from happening. If the spouse bites and takes the PA up on the offer, they will change their behavior just long enough for the spouse to believe again. But the transformation is not real. The PA quickly reverts back to old ways of handling this tricky situation with even more excuses for their actions.
    1. Spousal Reaction. Furious, the spouse pursues divorce again, only to find out that the PA is now twisting the events around to benefit themselves. Suddenly, according to everyone else’s perception, it is the spouse’s rage that is the problem and the PA actively seeks opportunities to expose the spouse’s intensity. This tactic is accomplished with sarcastic, embarrassing, and subtle remarks designed to privately dig at the spouse’s insecurities. They are so covert that an outsider would believe the comments to be benign and see the spouse, not the PA, as reactionary.
    2. Better Response. Don’t react emotionally. Save the frustration for a trusted friend who sees the PA’s nature and intent. Take a pause before responding to anything the PA says or writes to try and soothe angry impulses. Insist that all communication be done via text or email to give even more time and reflection to respond while physically separating yourself from the stressor.
  2. Delay Tactic. Next, the PA begins a series of postponements. They may agree to move out, but then claim there is no money or time to do so. They agree to talk to the kids, but when given the opportunity, they won’t say a word. They agree to the divorce but won’t show up for a meeting with an attorney, counselor, or mediator. They agree to sign papers and then somehow conveniently “forget” or “misplace” them.
    1. Spousal Reaction. For the spouse, these deferrals are further evidence of incompetency or spite. However, when pressed, the PA shuts down, even more, shifting the blame and using the added pressure as a new excuse for their hesitation. A divorce can drag out for years this way because the PA won’t do any of the work and divorce requires quite a bit of effort. This forces the spouse to complete nearly all the work in order to proceed with the divorce. The PA, in turn, uses this as proof that the spouse is controlling on unsympathetic to them.
    2. Better Response.Plan on handling all of the details of the divorce from the start. Have no expectations about the PA participating in it. Use court-ordered deadlines to force issues rather than badgering for a response and leaving it in the hands of the PA.
  3. Victim Play. The blame-shifting takes on a more intense level when the PA plays the victim role. This is done for show in front of family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and children; basically everyone except the spouse. The web the PA creates is one where the spouse is overbearing, demanding, nitpicky, reactionary, and resentful. (All of which are behaviors the spouse often feels forced into because of the PA nature.) The story creates claims that the PA has been wrongly accused, persecuted, and even abused by the spouse.
    1. Spousal Reaction. Desperate to set the story straight, the spouse tries to defend their behavior. Unfortunately, this only makes the spouse look worse because the PA has preempted the tale. PA’s have the ability to be charming when needed, not take responsibility for anything, keep everyone at an arm’s length distance and cough up an apology when absolutely necessary. This keeps the spouse securely on the defensive.
    2. Better Response. Don’t get defensive, be offensive. Long before the divorce is mentioned to the PA, have a couple of friends and family members already prepped for the PA nature. Take the time to educate them so they can identify it ahead of time and be supportive.
  4. End Game. After the divorce is filed, the PA uses the divorce as an excuse for further laziness. It is the ultimate defense for any procrastination, avoidance of conflict, missed deadline, sullen appearance, complaint, or neglect of other personal relationships. The ex-spouse is now the reason for all of their woes and the PA loves to tell the twisted story of blame.
    1. Ex-Spousal Reaction. Usually, the ex can put up with the distortion of reality with just about everyone except the kids. This is the area that continues to incite the ex as the PA refuses to discipline, show up for events, help complete homework assignments, or pay for extra expenses. The spouse tries desperately to point out the PA’s shortcomings only to discover that the kids prefer the “no rules” and “all fun” environment.
    2. Better Response. Stay focused on the long run. While kids might enjoy a temporary “no rules” environment, this will not last. As the demands of school increase, most kids prefer to be in a consistent atmosphere where expectations are clearly communicated. The PA nature of their parent will generate frustration and annoyance. Be the safe parent that listens to their kid’s point of view and comes alongside with meaningful suggestions.

Divorce is a difficult situation to tackle already without doing so with an equally difficult spouse. While a passive-aggressive personality certainly doesn’t make the process any easier, hopefully, some of these guidelines will help to keep it from being more complicated than necessary.


How to Handle a Passive-Aggressive during Divorce

Christine Hammond, MS, LMHC

Christine Hammond is a leading mental health influencer, author, and guest speaker. As an author of the award-winning “The Exhausted Woman’s Handbook,” and more than 500 articles, Christine has more than one million people downloading her podcast “Understanding Today’s Narcissist,” and more than 400,000 views on YouTube. Her practice specializes in treating families of abuse, and trauma, with personality disorders involved which are based on her own personal experience. Her new book, Abuse Exposed: Identifying Family Secrets that Breed Dysfunction will be published in 2020. Christine is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Qualified Supervisor by the State of Florida, a National Certified Counselor, Certified Family Trauma Professional, with extensive training in crisis intervention and peaceful resolution. Based in Orlando, you may connect with Christine at Grow with Christine (


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APA Reference
Hammond, C. (2020). How to Handle a Passive-Aggressive during Divorce. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from