Despite all the attention given to divorces that end up in a trial in front of a judge, the reality is that about 95% of all cases settle before that happens.
Spouses work out the issues by themselves or they use alternative resolution methods such as mediation or collaborative divorce.
But for those couples who wind up in litigation, either through a negotiated settlement, arbitration or an actual trial, there’s a good chance that a fair amount of conflict is going to be part of the process. Children may temper the animosity between parents, or they may be the source of a highly emotional battle that will take a toll on everyone who is involved.
As much as 70% of all divorces are initiated by women, which is a bit counterintuitive because divorce generally reduces the standard of living for women and improves it for men. But this is balanced by the fact that women have a higher degree of sensitivity to relationship issues. This creates more dissatisfaction that can propel a woman to take action.
This dissatisfaction leads to higher levels of stress which is further impacted by a general imbalance of power that traditionally exists between genders. Despite changes in society, there is still a high degree of traditional gender roles in society, supported by the fact that women still take care of a vast majority of household responsibilities.
When these dynamics are coupled with complex divorce issues, it can produce an intense and destructive set of feelings and responses that will devastate either one or both of the parties.
Recognizing the traits of a high conflict personality
Some spouses are able to move through the divorce process and are able to cope with bouts of anger and depression before moving on a beginning a healing process. However, some spouses get “stuck” in certain types of behavior that can not only create conflict in their own lives, but in their spouse’s life as well. This, in turn, can create a high degree of animosity in the divorce process.
Some of the behaviors that are typical in people with high conflict personalities include
- A preoccupation with blaming others
- A manifestation of blame that causes verbal, physical, financial or legal attacks
- Unmanaged and rigid emotions
- A lot of all-or-nothing thinking
- Extreme behaviors that manifest themselves in a variety of ways
- Some traits of or fully formed personality disorders such as narcissism
- Being stuck in the past that won’t give them the mindset to change their behavior and move forward.
- Constantly defending their own behavior and attacking the other spouse’s behavior, talking about it to anyone who will listen.
People with personality disorders often have great difficulty accepting and coping with a divorce. The stress they experience can exaggerate their mental health issues, sometimes raising feelings of threat, inferiority, being ignored or being dominated. They lash out and create episodes of destructive or high conflict behaviors.
Steps you can take to cope and recover from a high conflict divorce
Once you recognize you are dealing with a high conflict personality or that you are in the throes of a high conflict divorce, there are steps you can take to make your life easier.
Recognize that you probably can’t change the other person’s way of thinking, but you can choose how you react and respond back to them.
Here are some things you can do:
Let your spouse own their behaviors. Don’t take it personally. Their anger and blaming you is their issue, not yours. You have enough of your own baggage to carry around. Don’t carry theirs as well.
You don’t have to become a target for abuse. If you’re not being treated with an appropriate degree of respect, then cut off communication until your spouse is able to modify and control their behavior. When you draw a line and set up a boundary, you create a more fully formed sense of self-worth that separates your feelings and your behavior from your spouse’s.
Don’t fall for their tactics and traps. If your spouse says or does something that you don’t agree with, don’t give in. This can include playing several kinds of emotional cards such as acting sad, trying to evoke pity, being angry or even threatening you in the hopes of intimidating you.
Don’t be played. Chances are they have had several years to hone their abilities and they may come across as logical or rational, which is why you must be on guard and recognize when you are being played. Learn to stand up to them and say “no” without feeling guilty or intimidated.
Don’t be bullied. Set a boundary and as soon as your spouse crosses it, end the conversation. Don’t escalate the behavior. You won’t win. They won’t win. You will only make things worse without a constructive framework to guide you.
Recognize that a destructive spouse is using you to feel powerful. When you keep engaging an abusive or narcissistic spouse, you are feeding their need to control a relationship by exercising power over you. A destructive spouse will not care how long a legal process takes because it is a way of staying connected to you in a twisted sort of way. To them, it is better to be an enemy than a nobody in your eyes, so that they can keep punishing you. If you see this kind of behavior, do whatever it takes to expedite the legal process and minimize contact.
Don’t allow children to be a part of the discussion. When children are part of a divorce, a spouse may use them in a number of ways to inflict pain or gain an advantage. Never argue in front of the children.
Do not use them as messengers. Do not allow your spouse to use them as agents of guilt. As difficult as a high conflict divorce may be on you, it will be impossibly difficult for a child trapped in the middle. You must do whatever it takes to remove them from the center of any conflict.
If you are already divorced and co-parenting is part of the arrangement, then find ways to peacefully make an exchange, perhaps in a public space or with minimal interaction such as picking up or dropping off children curbside.
Also keep in mind that unless abuse or neglect is present, children deserve uninterrupted time with the other parent. You also deserve time to decompress and recharge from your obligations as a single parent.
If your children are having trouble coping with any conflict, then you should consider participating in family therapy with them so that they can deal with their own anger, grief and sadness. A therapist can help you establish appropriate boundaries around parent-child roles.
Do not take part in social media shaming or allow yourself to be a victim of social media shaming. Airing your dirty laundry over social media can be devastating and drive even your closest friends and family members away from you. Stay away from online drama, sniping and other questionable posting. It’s probably best if you unfollow your spouse as well if this becomes a problem and ask your inner circle to refrain from posting about your family until things settle down.
Practice self-care. This can happen in many forms. Seek support from friends and family. If you need to, get counseling. There is no shame in asking for help in working through your problems. Find ways to take care of yourself by getting enough exercise, eating right and taking time to do the things you love. This can be something simple like a bike ride, a walk on the beach or a night out dancing or taking in a game.
Leave your past behind. Let go of how things could have or should have turned out. Playing the “what if” game will drive you nuts and depress you if you let it. It’s okay to grieve and say goodbye to a relationship, no matter how toxic it was, but at some point you must let go before you can move forward. If you ruminate and get stuck in the past, your feelings will only magnify and cause you to be stuck in your own endless loop.
Pay attention to your inner self. When you find your feelings starting to drift into negative territory, recognize and be mindful that you are in this place and take steps to bring yourself back to the present. Activate your mind with a creative outlet that requires focus and concentration, whether it’s reading, writing, painting or another active hobby to engage your mind.
Learn from your experience. It may take some time, but eventually you will be able to analyze and figure out the lessons that your divorce taught you. Don’t affix too much blame to either you or your spouse but be honest in your assessment. When this self-reflection takes place, it’s a healing process that allows you to move forward.
Practice gratitude. No matter how destructive or high conflict your marriage was, keep in mind that it is in the past and you have the opportunity to redefine yourself as a person. Be grateful for all the positives in your life. Focus on your healthy relationships and rebuild those that might have suffered that you still value.
Give it time. You may not see it if your wounds are fresh, but time heals. You won’t get better overnight. You won’t get better in a week. But over time, small positive things will happen and the bad period you went through will begin to fade away. You have been given another chance and if you can frame things correctly, over time you will feel better.
Looking for more divorce financial planning tips? Here are a few of our favorite resources:
- 101 Financial Pitfalls of Divorce
- The Ultimate Divorce Checklist: The Information You Need to Prepare for Divorce
- Divorcing an Abusive Spouse: What to Do When Domestic Violence is Part of the Equation
- The Ultimate Guide to Divorcing a Narcissist
- Protecting Your Kids from a Hostile Parent in Divorce
- The Psychological Effects of Divorce on Children