High-Conflict Divorce: Experts’ Recommendations

Research suggests that approximately 10% of the divorcing population can be identified as having high-conflict divorce. And within that group another 10% or 1% of the total divorcing population is in ongoing high-conflict that will likely never change. Divorcehelpforparents.com

The above-listed website lists the following as some of the ways a high-conflict divorce might play out:

  • Ongoing, unremitting hostility between adults
  • Drawn-out or frequent court actions
  • Custody battles
  • Allegations of domestic violence, physical abuse, and/or sexual abuse
  • Restraining orders or no-contact orders
  • Lack of ability to communicate about children and their care

Often one or both partners have personality disorders, or high-conflict personalities (HCPs). This can include, for example, narcissism, borderline personality, and/or sociopathy.

Susan Valentine, HuffPost, lists five common traits of HCPs.

  1. Deceitfulness
  2. Blaming
  3. Manipulation of others
  4. Uncompromising
  5. Lack of Empathy

Regarding how to deal with such divorces, Valentine concludes, it’s “not about striving for harmony, seeking mediation, or finding a way to work together as co-parents. It’s about being pro-active, strategic, protecting yourself and your children (as much as possible), and not letting it take over your life.”

Suggested strategies, including excerpts and/or bullet points taken from Valentine’s explanations:

    • Empower yourself: Document everything; pick your battles wisely.
    • Stay grounded: Try to avoid the drama.
    • Seek support: Legal expertise and therapy go a long way.
    • Remain aware: Monitor signs of threatening behavior.
    • Surrender fantasies “…that your ex-spouse will fundamentally change.”
    • Enforce boundaries: “…Communicate only when necessary and then do so briefly by email…”
    • Maintain perspective: “…HCPs will try to keep you from moving on with your life, even after the legal case ends — and especially if you have children — so don’t give them that power.”
    • Cultivate mindfulness: “…Try and stay present, open and flexible, and be as kind to yourself as possible…you will need it.”

In addressing the typically long-term nature of co-parenting, social worker Linda Esposito, LCSW, titles her Psychology Today post, “Marriages Come and Go, but High-Conflict Divorce Is Forever.” Below are the four co-parenting “minefields” she says are commonly encountered:

  1. Contentious custody exchanges. “…In general, the fewer custodial exchanges, the better….”
  2. Persistent communication with co-parent and/or children during non-custodial time. “…Children deserve uninterrupted time with the other parent. Alternatively, you deserve time to decompress and recharge from your obligations as a single parent.”
  3. Placing children in the middle to spy or settle disputes. “…Using children to pass messages is age-inappropriate and damaging to their self-worth.”
  4. Social media shaming. “…Kids feel ‘broken’ enough trying to navigate puberty, peer pressure, and the latest social media crazes.”

Finally, here are four rules, or the 4D’s, of managing high-conflict divorce according to the High Conflict Institute.

  • Disengage: “…If you take the time to sort through your triggers and plan a strategy for how to cope when triggered, you will be putting yourself (and your children) on a path for healthier conflict resolution.”
  • Decide: “You’ve likely never had to make so many decisions in your whole life…How do you make decisions when the person you have to make them with says No to everything you put forward just because they hate you?” Have an agenda, says the Institute, and communicate via proposals.
  • Deliver: “When you are communicating with your High Conflict Ex, keep all emotional words OUT of your email…If you are writing more than 4 sentences, you are either sneaking in an opinion (and you will be attacked) or an emotion (you will also be attacked). Keep in mind ‘BIFF Responses’ to hostile emails: Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm…”
  • Document: “In jot note form document the facts surrounding each manipulation/lie your Ex attempts to control you with. Do not add in any emotions to your notes – just the facts. Include dates, times and outcomes…”
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