Guiding Parents in a High-Conflict Divorce

Jaburg Wilk

Jaburg Wilk

Family law attorneys may have many “high-conflict” divorces in which parents cannot resolve their differences in either a business-like or amicable manner. Typically, there is on-going, unrelenting hostility between the parents.  Frequently, there are allegations of domestic violence, physical abuse, and/or sexual abuse.  The parents lack the ability to communicate about their children and the care of their children with one another. Additionally, they are unable to resolve financial issues including child support, unable to reconcile differing parenting styles, cannot overcome unresolved feelings, and are continually positioning themselves to be the “better” parent.

Commonly in a high-conflict divorce one or both parents suffer from some type of personality disorder. Whether it is diagnosed or not, is of no real significance.  What matters are the behaviors that drive the conflict. Typical patterns of dysfunctional behavior in a high conflict divorce include:

  • Fact rearranging – Recasting facts and events in their favor and having a distorted view of reality;
  • “Black and White” polarized thinking;
  • A view of the other parent as incompetent and/or evil;
  • Highly exaggerated emotions;
  • An inability to understand how they contribute to their own problems;
  • Being more comfortable to label themselves as “victim” and a preoccupation with blaming others which also presents as the lack of accountability

If a parent is involved in a high conflict divorce, it is frustrating, likely will increase their legal bills and may negatively impact the children.  The following are some tips to help parents lessen the conflict:

  • Parents can develop skills to cope with stress by managing their own emotions. They should learn techniques for calming themselves which might include deep breathing or other mindfulness activities prior to exchanges or communications with the other parent.
  • Once a parent recognizes they - or the other parent - use all or nothing thinking they can explore new and different solutions to each problem.
  • High-conflict personalities commonly author hostile emails or text messages. Instant, emotional and long-winded responses to such communications should be avoided. All communications do not need to be answered immediately! Instead, wait and offer a focused response which is brief, informative, friendly but firm.
  • Often conflict occurs during parenting time exchanges. Generally, these should be avoided by structuring the exchanges to be at school. Alternatively, parents can meet at a neutral public location somewhere in between their two residences.
  • Social media shaming is now common. Disconnect from the high-conflict parent by unfollowing them and discouraging your friends and family from sharing private family information in a place where it might be seen by the other parent.
  • When the other parent becomes reactive, respond without pointing out the flaws in their argument. As hard as this may be, do not take it personally. If the other parent does point out something you can improve on or have done wrong acknowledge their point, apologize and suggest a way you can improve on the matter in the future. Validate to avoid escalation of the crisis without acknowledging fault or encouraging bad behavior.
  • Never tell a high-conflict person, who is possibly suffering from a personality disorder, that they are “crazy” or “insane” or other labels. Instead, be specific about behavior you find objectionable.

While it will still be difficult to be engaged in a high-conflict divorce, these tips may help minimize damage, maintain healthy relationships with children and emerge mentally healthy.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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