How to Deal with a Passive-Aggressive Spouse During Divorce

People tend to use certain communication styles in their everyday interactions, even during a divorce. A person may use an assertive, passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive style of communication – or they may use a combination of styles.

Unfortunately, some communication styles are more difficult to deal with than others, especially as you try to negotiate a divorce settlement. 

A passive-aggressive spouse can be especially problematic during divorce proceedings because they may use subtle manipulation tactics and other confusing behaviors to get their way. However, you can learn how to deal with this behavior and ultimately succeed at divorce … it just requires some specific skills.

Identifying passive-aggressive behavior

Passive-aggressive spouses don’t express their negative feelings directly. Instead, they say things that don’t line up with what they actually do. This creates confusion and can even impede the divorce process. 

Procrastination and stalling

For example, passive-aggressive spouses may procrastinate or stall in order to get a response out of you. They may avoid responding to your petition for divorce, or they may 

wait until the last possible day to provide any type of rebuttal. If this procrastination continues throughout the duration of the divorce, it could take months to finalize. 

Furthermore, these delays can come with consequences and may even require you to take additional steps to finalize your divorce. Although many states allow divorce by default in situations where one spouse does not respond to the other’s petition, this route takes time. In some cases, additional steps are required to prove you tried to receive a response.

Resistance and refusal

In other instances, a passive-aggressive spouse may resist mediation or other forms of collaboration as a form of opposition. This can occur even when a spouse initially seemed on board with the divorce because they are now allowing resentment and cynicism run the show. They may even blame you for their opposition since passive-aggressive partners typically use blame, shame, and criticism to get their way.

Although your spouse’s refusal to collaborate is frustrating, to say the least, eventually your divorce will go before a judge if you can’t come to an agreement. Usually, judges don’t look favorably on spouses who impede the process, meaning your spouse’s passive-aggressive behavior may ultimately hurt them in the final judgment.

Negative communication

Even if your partner eventually goes along with your efforts to collaborate, chances are high that they will use insults, sarcasm, or other harmful forms of communication to wear you down. This is why it’s so important to prepare yourself and respond appropriately when dealing with a passive-aggressive spouse during a divorce.

Reasons behind passive-aggressive behavior

Dealing with a passive-aggressive spouse is never fun, especially during a divorce. However, understanding the rationale behind their behavior can give you a fresh perspective that makes dealing with them at least tolerable.

Believe it or not, there are several explanations behind your spouse’s passive-aggressive behavior. 

A play for power

In some cases, passive-aggressive behavior is a power play that gives a spouse control in the situation. This behavior doesn’t require as much skill or effort as assertive communication, yet it still achieves the spouse’s end goal. It can also serve as a form of revenge that doesn’t come across as harshly as purely aggressive behavior.


Sometimes, spouses use passive-aggressive behavior because they simply don’t know any better. They may have never learned assertive communication growing up, so they may see passive-aggressive behavior as the solution to their problems. Similarly, their brain may automatically rationalize the behavior, which makes it a hard habit to break.

A substitute for anger

Finally, some people use passive-aggressive behavior as a placeholder for the anger they feel. Expressing anger isn’t seen as socially acceptable, especially when it comes in the form of purely aggressive behavior. So instead, some people use passive-aggressive behavior to release their anger without coming across as angry.

Responding with assertiveness

Passive-aggressive people will try to use blame, shame, and criticism to wear you down into submission. However, you can combat this by standing your ground and using assertive communication throughout your divorce. 

Unlike the other communication styles, assertive communication is based on mutual respect and rational facts. While passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive behavior typically evokes an emotional response from the other person, assertive communication focuses on delivering your needs and desires in a direct, easy-to-understand manner. This helps you appear confident and allows you to stand your ground no matter what the other person throws at you.

If you are dealing with a passive-aggressive spouse, plan to take the reins early in the divorce process. Communicate your needs and desires clearly, in writing, and then give your spouse time to respond. If you need to talk face-to-face, try to use “I” statements, and express yourself in a way that doesn’t place blame or make assumptions about the other person’s feelings.

If possible, avoid badgering your spouse about deadlines or responding to submissions made through your attorney. Instead, allow the attorney to handle that, and let the written deadlines speak for themselves. This ultimately avoids conflict and allows you to stand your ground.

Setting boundaries with a passive-aggressive spouse

It’s important to set clear boundaries during the divorce proceedings so you can avoid any potential pitfalls your passive-aggressive spouse may try to place in front of you. This can be hard if your spouse appears wishy-washy or has always communicated with you in a passive-aggressive way. However, boundaries will ultimately help you remain calm and get what you need during the divorce.

When you communicate boundaries, it can help to do so in a standard format like this:

  1.  Describe the situation in a simple, factual way. (For example, “We must each provide these documents to the mediator.”)
  2.  Express your feelings in the situation using “I” statements. (For example, “I feel frustrated when documents don’t get turned in on time.”)
  3.  Assert your needs, still using “I” statements. (“I need to submit everything today, including your bank statements.”
  4.  Reinforce positive responses with words like “thank you” or other forms of gratitude.

Also, don’t be afraid to use the broken record method if your spouse meets your boundaries with opposition or other passive-aggressive behaviors. By standing your ground and calmly repeating what you’ve already said, you’re more likely to diffuse the situation.

The importance of self-care

As divorce strategist Laura Aiello shared with us during a guest post, self-care is not optional, especially when you’re going through a divorce with a passive-aggressive spouse. You need to look out for yourself now, and you will need somewhere to retreat after a long, emotional day of working through divorce. So, make a list now of self-care activities you find beneficial, and commit to doing one thing each day.

If you aren’t sure where to start, these self-care suggestions are popular:

  • Meditation or other mindfulness activities
  • Jogging or other forms of exercise
  • Yoga
  • Dinner with friends
  • Journaling
  • Visual arts like painting or drawing
  • Bubble baths

If you’re feeling particularly defeated or your self-esteem is running low, you can also use positive affirmations to boost your confidence and remind yourself of the good things in life.

Outside help

Sometimes, working through a divorce with a passive-aggressive spouse is too much to do on your own. This is exactly why mediators exist—to help make the divorce process smooth and collaborative for everyone.

Hello Divorce offers flat-rate mediation services that can fit into any budget. Furthermore, our mediators can meet with each of you virtually, so you don’t even have to be in the same room as your soon-to-be ex. This often removes the communication problems that occur when working through a divorce with a passive-aggressive spouse so you can reach a resolution that much faster.

Whatever you decide to do in your divorce, know that the team at Hello Divorce is here to help.


Divorce Specialists
After spending years in toxic and broken family law courts, and seeing that no one wins when “lawyer up,” we knew there was an opportunity to do and be better. We created Hello Divorce to the divorce process easier, affordable, and completely online. Our guiding principles are to make sure both spouses feel heard, supported, and set up for success as they move into their next chapter in life.