Are you in a high conflict divorce?


date published

2nd May 2024

written by

Emma Heptonstall Image

date published

2nd May 2024

No divorce is a walk in the park. But high conflict divorce takes it to a whole other level. And I’d say over half of my clients are in a high conflict divorce or separation, without having a clue. Are you? Read on to hear Sarah’s story, understand the 7 signs of a high conflict divorce, and learn why it’s so vital to recognise if it’s where you are right now.

Sarah’s story

Sarah (not her real name) was one of my first clients. At first glance, her divorce seemed straightforward, and Sarah was in a good position. She’d risen through the ranks in her corporate career. She had enough money not to worry about the future, and was confident she could manage her divorce – after all she managed huge budgets and decision-making at work. She wanted my support to clarify her thinking, and to save her time and stress in the divorce process. Which was a wise move.

Because all wasn’t as it seemed with Sarah’s marriage. As we started working together, her husband, let’s call him Peter, revealed himself to be quite a tricky character. He put up barriers to everything Sarah suggested. He grudgingly agreed to mediation then didn’t show up.

And, over time, Sarah revealed snippets to me that showed this was a pattern of behaviour, one that had started before they were married. If Peter didn’t get his own way, he’d ‘kick off’. He’d hide the car keys. He’d throw the car keys at Sarah. He’d cancel plans with friends behind Sarah’s back, telling them Sarah was ill.

And, the thing is, Sarah had accepted all of this as ‘just being how he is’. She’d given him the benefit of the doubt, and put this behaviour down to his temper and insecurity stemming from a difficult childhood.

The truth of the matter is, this was an emotionally and physically abusive relationship. Peter was using manipulation, power and control to get what he wanted. And it was only when Sarah started to see his behaviour for what it was that the divorce could progress.

At first, when I raised this with Sarah, she made excuses for him. And, don’t get me wrong, I understand that many abusive behaviours come from perpetrators being abused or badly treated themselves. But that doesn’t mean they are acceptable. Sarah started to see that the dynamic she had with Peter, both in their marriage and as they were divorcing, was abusive.

Seeing it for what it was meant she could accept the reality of her situation, and act accordingly. Next time on the blog I’ll share the five things you need to put in place when you’re in a high conflict divorce – these are the things Sarah did. But for now, know that Sarah was able to get through her divorce, and is out the other side, with her own home and a new partner.

7 signs of a high conflict divorce

So how do you know if your divorce is high conflict? Here are 7 signs:

  1. Constant arguments: It’s normal for there to be some tension and arguing with your soon-to-be-ex. But if you find that arguments are the only way you interact, despite your best efforts to be reasonable or seek resolution, you may have a high conflict personality on your hands
  2. Communication difficulties: arguing is one form of high conflict communication. Another is non-responsiveness, a refusal to engage – even when the court has got involved. Another is twisting your words, or gaslighting you – claiming you said or did things that weren’t the case.
  3. Legal battles: A high conflict person thrives on battle-mode, often while claiming to be the victim. If you find every point to do with the children, property, finance or business contested, it may be a high conflict situation. Equally, if your spouse refuses to engage in the legal process at all, or only on their terms, it’s a sign of high conflict.
  4. Emotional intensity: High conflict personalities tend to have extreme emotions. In the early days of a relationship, this can look like ‘love bombing’ making you feel like the most important person in the world. When it comes to divorce, it’s more likely to look like rage, extreme defensiveness, over reactions to minor issues and guilt-tripping.
  5. Inflexibility: High conflict people need to ‘win’ and often lack empathy. They can only see what’s right from their perspective, and it has to be that way or nothing. This can make mediation, negotiation and even access to information difficult.
  6. Marshalling their troops: In their efforts to be right, your soon-to-be-ex may involve as many people as possible in the divorce. They may contact friends and family, bring in all manner of unnecessary professional third parties, creating complexity and drama.
  7. Weaponised co-parenting: One of the saddest aspects of high conflict divorce is when the children are used as pawns in a power game. A high conflict parent will not put the children’s needs first, and use them to make your life miserable. They may also attempt to alienate the children from you.

If you recognise several of these signs in your divorce, it’s essential to seek specialist support. Not all lawyers or divorce coaches are trained in high conflict, and as high conflict personalities are often skilled manipulators, you can get burned.

Trained professionals will spot the signs when your high conflict ex plays their games. They can support you to make smart decisions to de-escalate the conflict as far as possible, and ensure you hold onto your reality. It is so important to approach a high conflict divorce with the right tools for the job. It’s the equivalent of trying to farm crops on a rocky outcrop versus a fertile valley. It can be done – but only if you know how.

If you’ve read this and are thinking ‘Oh wow, that’s my ex to a tee!’, then I want to reassure you. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, you’ve already done the most important thing, by recognising your situation as high conflict.

I’d love to help you take the next step towards your future, a future free from the grasp of your high conflict spouse. Just book in a free call and let’s chat.


About Emma

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is the author of the Amazon best-selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready, the online self-study programmes, and the newly released ‘Should I be a Lady Who Leaves?’. For More Information on Should I be a Lady Who Leaves? click here.

Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. Emma is also the host of  The Six Minute Divorce Podcast. To find out more visit


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