Divorce is difficult even under the best of circumstances. If you are in a situation where the divorce process seems especially brutal because of an overly uncooperative ex, you may be experiencing the characteristics of a “high conflict” divorce. Why are the challenges in your divorce so extensive and formidable? More than likely, one person involved has characteristics that are consistent with a high conflict personality. Some of these characteristics will be familiar to you, as you may have dealt with them throughout the time you were together.
Your ex always blames others.
This characteristic may be familiar, because your partner would have had difficulty accepting responsibility or fault for any problems in your relationship when you were together. Your divorce may seem to be exaggerating this difficult quality. If, according to your ex, you are to blame for everything, communication, co-parenting, or anything else that requires the smallest level of cooperation, is extremely difficult. The focus is turned on you, and none of it is positive. The difficult partner is hyper-focused on detailing every misstep you have made in the relationship, as a parent, and even as a person. This is about condemnation and not about resolving issues that will actually end the marriage.
Because you are to blame, the partner may call you names and bad-mouth you to others, even your children. Acting out in revenge is not out of the question either. The high conflict person intent on revenge will personally, emotionally, and financially damage the other spouse as much as possible.
They are all or nothing thinkers.
The high conflict person is a black and white thinker. There is no in-between. You are awful; they are great. You are unfair; they are just. You are mean; they are kind. You are wrong; they are right. You are a bad parent; they are a great parent. You get the picture. This type of thinking is impossible when compromise is necessary. The individual sees the divorce as a win-lose situation and they are not going to lose. In a high conflict divorce, the partner is not willing to agree to anything, even the simplest, most reasonable items. Compromising requires give and take, and the high conflict partner will not give.
They have unmanaged emotions
Trying to work out difficult problems with someone who is volatile can be impossible. In every conversation, you may find yourself trying not to “poke the bear”. Anger and other negative emotions will still emerge, because this kind of person seeks out reasons to argue and will relentlessly perpetuate the conflict by any means. This elevates the divorce process to a combat zone, making it impossible to move forward safely on any issues or decisions.
They also have extreme behaviors
High conflict personalities do things that you can’t imagine, have triggers that are unpredictable, and display behaviors seem totally irrational. They break the rules, lie, and are hostile. They will spin a dense web of deception and fabricate stories that depict you in the worst possible light. They may want to get out of the marriage, but if revenge is a factor, they want to do as much damage to the other person as possible first. Nothing is off the table and the extent of their capabilities is totally unpredictable.
What can you do if you find yourself in a high conflict divorce?
There are some things you can do that will help to prevent an escalation in your partner’s behaviour. None of them are easy, but having a strategy will help you feel like you have some control.
- Avoid trying to explain how the uncooperative behaviour is unproductive. The high conflict person will not change and you cannot control this. What you can control are your responses. Try to use a low-conflict communication style – be concise, relay facts (no opinions, feelings, advice), watch your tone (no sarcasm), and be firm (set a boundary and stick to it).
- Avoid focusing on the past and emphasize the future. Don’t engage in what your ex may have said about you and focus on being the most consistent, level-headed person you can be. When you talk to your children say what you know to be true and avoid venting about your frustrations about your ex. Teach your children critical thinking skills so they learn to trust their own feelings and perceptions. Even though your ex may bring up everything from the past, remain focused on the future and what lies ahead.
- Although this is difficult, avoid giving any negative feedback or engage in emotional confrontations. Resist being baited into an argument even if the baiting seems relentless. As mentioned above, use a reporter-style communication method, focusing on the facts, and highlight the positive. Do not highlight your ex’s shortcomings and how they are impacting the progress of your divorce, or how it is impacting you, or your children’s lives. It may be true, but it will validate the effectiveness of the high conflict behavior.
This process does not have to be this difficult. We are here to help. Get in touch with Connie or Wendy to find out what your options are.