Passive-Aggressive Co-Parenting

Father considers how to respond to a message on his phone while his daughter works on her homework.

Anyone who has grown up with a family member well-versed in the tactics of passive aggressiveness knows how unpleasant this form of non-confrontational warfare can be. Instead of dealing with disagreements and issues head-on, families locked in a cycle of passive-aggressive behavior can skirt around issues for days, or sometimes much longer, often exacerbating conflict.

It’s usually fairly simple to pinpoint passive-aggressive behaviors in our friends, family, and colleagues. But when you’re the one bringing the silent treatment and pointed-procrastination to the table? It’s a little tougher to be truthful about your own behavior and admit that the passive-aggressive tinged atmosphere is your own doing.

With co-parenting, it’s vital that parents are honest about the origins of any conflict and are able to identify passive-aggressive behaviors before they get out of hand. Doing so prevents disagreements from festering and fosters an atmosphere of cooperation.

How do I identify passive-aggressiveness in my co-parenting?

In order to counteract passive-aggressive behaviors, you need to be able to recognize when you’re engaging in them. While this list of common passive-aggressive tactics is far from exhaustive, they’re a good place to start when you’re determining whether you need to reassess your approach to problem-solving.


Procrastinating on a personal endeavor or goal may not be the end of the world. At the end of the day, the one most deeply affected in such a situation is yourself. But when you begin procrastinating on commitments that involve your co-parent, delaying resolutions to shared issues, you may be dipping your toe into passive-aggressive waters.

Why is procrastination a warning sign of passive-aggression? By refusing to complete a task or answer a question in a timely manner, procrastinators are attempting to control a situation through avoidance.

Often, procrastination is used as a way to avoid tough discussions entirely.

Whether you resent being tasked with a certain project or do not like the inevitable outcome of a discussion, delaying a resolution still creates conflict, albeit in a more roundabout way.

Procrastination can also be employed to feign agreement. Rather than voice a contrary opinion from the get-go, passive-aggressive people sometimes agree to a solution, only to use procrastination as a way to achieve the exact opposite. While avoiding direct confrontation, this tactic does not actually prevent conflict.

“Can’t” versus “Won’t”

Co-parenting requires all involved parties to compromise, but that can sometimes be a bitter pill to swallow. Compromises after a divorce or separation often result in no one being 100% happy with the resolution. Nevertheless, coming to the table knowing that the ultimate goal is to raise happy and healthy children is typically motivation enough for both parents to commit to an agreement.

If passive-aggression is a major player, however, refusing to compromise often manifests as the masking of ‘won’t’ with ‘can’t.’

When approaching a discussion with your co-parent, or responding to a request of theirs, honesty about your own motivations is vital. Shutting down an uncomfortable discussion can be infinitely easier if it’s a matter of simply being unable to do something. But being honest with yourself means examining whether or not that inability is, in actuality, an unwillingness to do something.

Flexibility is a major component of successful co-parenting. Stubbornness for its own sake stalls discussions and creates needless roadblocks to problem-solving in shared parenting. So when responding to a request from your co-parent, be sure to inspect any gut reactions that lead you to refuse the request outright.

Being unwilling to satisfy a request is not always due to passive-aggression. There will be times when a proposal, while possible, is simply untenable for myriad reasons. But when this is the case, resolving the issue with honesty, rather than masking your refusal as a matter of inability, will be better for the health of your co-parenting relationship in the long run.

Silent Treatment

The silent treatment is one of the most easily recognizable passive-aggressive behaviors. Refusing to engage at all with your co-parent about an issue, rather than working to find a solution together, is not only immature but can also seriously damage the long-term health of your co-parenting relationship.

Positive and productive co-parenting requires that parents remain in open dialogue with each other about their children. If either parent shuts down tough discussions—of which there may be many—by engaging in the silent treatment, the entire family will be left in limbo. Children, more than any other family member, will bear the consequences of this tactic.

Working to counteract passive-aggressive behavior

Once you’ve done the work to identify when passive-aggressive behaviors may be cropping up in your co-parenting, it’s time to start counteracting them with positive strategies.

Get comfortable with tough conversations

If you’re uncomfortable having difficult conversations with your co-parent, you may find yourself lapsing into passive-aggressive behavior more frequently. Rather than committing to solving an issue head-on, discomfort with hard discussions can lead to many of the avoidance tactics discussed above.

Even when productive, tense discussions rarely feel positive to those involved. When it comes to co-parenting, especially if a divorce is recent, adjusting to the new demands of raising children in separate households requires working through that tension.

Avoiding conflict isn’t the same as solving it. So while skirting tension may feel like a relief in the short-term, your co-parenting relationship needs a commitment to problem-solving in order to thrive.

Be open and honest with yourself

As touched upon previously, being open and honest about your own motivations and behaviors is paramount for the health of your co-parenting situation. In order to approach the multitude of co-parenting responsibilities with a commitment to cooperation, co-parents need to be able to say, without a doubt, that they are working with the best interests of their children in mind.

Perfection isn't attainable, but honesty about motivations is essential for preventing temporary slip-ups from becoming entrenched bad habits.

Passive-aggressive behaviors work in direct contravention to the tenets of positive co-parenting. Though they may not be as noticeable as heated arguments, these behaviors can wreak havoc on family dynamics after a divorce or separation. In order to prevent that, parents must be critical of their own motivations and behaviors, always looking for ways to improve their approach to shared parenting.

If you find yourself slipping into the silent treatment or procrastination, don’t panic. Instead, simply apologize, refresh your commitment to positive co-parenting, and keep moving forward.