There's bound to be some conflict when a marriage ends. A couple might argue over who gets custody of the golden retriever or how to divide a retirement account. In many cases, spouses come to a peaceful compromise on their own or with the help of a divorce mediator, an attorney, or a financial advisor.
But when disagreements intensify to the point that they disrupt everyday life—or the lives of children—and no amount of refereeing works, the split has evolved into a high-conflict divorce.
Thankfully, relationship and communication experts have found ways to de-escalate intense divorce battles and offer practical advice to help minimize the fallout.
The term high-conflict divorce is used to describe divorces where one or both spouses engage in negative behaviors to intentionally derail the process or inflict unnecessary emotional pain on one another.
Examples range from the refusal to disclose financial accounts to sending bullying emails to custody stalking (the use of legal proceedings to force contact with or financially burden a partner). Statistics vary but researchers estimate that roughly 20% of all separating couples are going through a divorce that could be considered high conflict.
Every situation is different, but here are some common characteristics that signal a high-conflict divorce:
In some high-conflict divorces, one spouse has high-conflict personality traits that make them prone to difficulties with decision making or adapting to change. But what crosses the line from advocating for what they want to engaging in high-conflict behavior?
If you recognize any of these behaviors in your soon-to-be ex, you might be divorcing a high-conflict person:
A high-conflict person will often escalate small disagreements into major battles. They might feel under attack, or like they are being put down or controlled.
Bill Eddy, one of the founders of the High Conflict Institute, estimates that about 10% of the U.S. population has a high-conflict personality.
Some high-conflict people may also have a cluster B personality disorder, according to Eddy.
People with cluster B personality disorders exhibit some of the same traits as high-conflict people, such as unstable emotions and erratic, aggressive or manipulative behavior. But, when going through a stressful situation like a separation or divorce, people with one of these personality disorders have the potential to become dangerous.
If you're divorcing a person with a high-conflict personality disorder, Eddy recommends taking steps to protect yourself before the situation gets out of hand—especially if there was domestic violence in the marriage.
It's hard to know exactly what to expect when going through a high-conflict divorce, but there are ways to proactively manage the repercussions.
Cherie Morris, J.D., is a certified divorce coach with experience helping spouses move through a high-conflict divorce. Morris offers six strategies that can help minimize or de-escalate conflicts when, or even before, they happen.
Telling everyone around you what you are dealing with in your high-conflict divorce might lead to more stress, not less. It might also cause a high-conflict spouse to intensify their behavior if they find out. Resist that urge, says Morris.
"It's one thing to explain to important folks around you (bosses, colleagues, family members, close friends) why you might not be your best self right now but more than that—or going into detail—is unwise," Morris explains.
Having professional support, like a divorce coach or therapist, might help prevent those intense feelings from spilling over into the rest of your life.
Bad-mouthing your spouse in front of the kids is a definite no-no, Morris says. Research reveals that children of high-conflict divorce have negative mental health outcomes. One study found that they were two-to-four times more likely to be clinically disturbed, particularly boys.
Highly conflicted custody cases keep children in constant emotional turmoil and put them at higher risk of mental illness, substance abuse, educational failure, and parental alienation. In fact, the level and intensity of parental conflict is now considered the most dominant factor in the outcome of a child's future life.
Negative comments are only going to make the situation worse for them. "Even if what you say is true," Morris says, "it doesn't serve the relationship you have to have going forward to co-parent your children."
Instead of firing off an emotionally charged response right away, Morris recommends that you write down what you want to say. Then let it sit for a day and come back to it.
"That way, you'll have time to calm down and not react to your high-conflict, soon-to-be former spouse, which is often what they want," says Morris.
Recognize that your spouse might be trying to drag you into a high-conflict exchange. Don't take the bait. "You can't change them but you have a choice in how you respond," Morris advises.
When possible, avoid being reactive in divorce negotiations. Morris recommends following the BIFF Response model.
BIFF stands for:
"No matter what response you get, stay firmly in that neutral zone," Morris says. "You'll be better served financially, emotionally, and legally. It's good for you. It's good for your kids."
When a high-conflict person has a complaint or begins to place blame, ask for a proposal.
A proposal includes who will do what, when, and where. Once the proposal has been offered, the other party can respond with "yes," " no," or "I'll think about it"—which helps keep the focus on the solution.
Morris suggests that you ask questions like: "Do you have any ideas on how we can solve that?" or "What do you suggest we do?" This negotiation technique helps the parties come up with solutions instead of keeping the argument going.
If your former partner has a high-conflict personality—and you don't have children—you might never need to have contact again once the divorce is settled.
Some people feel an emotional need to stay connected, says Morris, and that's a mistake. "There's a reason they're going to be an ex and I think you're well-served by living separate lives," she said. "If you don't have kids, it certainly makes that break easier and cleaner."
Not to say that if you run them that you can't be civil, but don't expect miracles from your difficult former spouse.
"It's lovely, if many moons later you can have that reconnection and even make a repair, but having that expectation can be a mistake," Morris said
If you decide to hire a lawyer for your high-conflict divorce, you'll want to take some time to find one with experience handling cases like yours and who's a good fit with your goals. Take a look at these important questions to ask before you make a decision.
Using a mediator for a high-conflict divorce is a good option for some couples. Proposing mediation should be done with care, but mediation might make the divorce less adversarial for the high-conflict spouse, take less time than court, and allow you to keep messy negotiation details private.