Am I in a high conflict divorce?


date published

12th November 2018

written by

Emma Heptonstall Image

date published

12th November 2018

Am I in a high conflict divorce?

Am I in a high conflict divorce? Might sound like a strange question right? It’s understandable that you might feel that way but you’d be wrong. Am I in a high conflict divorce?  is not just a good question to ask yourself, it’s a great question! You see, high conflict doesn’t always look like high conflict. It doesn’t always sound like high conflict or even feel like it. In my experience, if you’re a professional woman who has her own money, career and friends, you’re more likely to ignore the signs of a high conflict situation.

You’ll tell yourself “this doesn’t happen to women like me”.

Does that sound familiar?  If you feel uncomfortable reading that, this post is for you…

What does a high conflict divorce look like?

High conflict situations aren’t always easy to spot. You may not see it yourself, or if you do, those around you are oblivious. It’s frustrating. You wonder if you  are the problem. Friends and family comment on what a great family unit you have, because on the surface you do. Great careers, nice home, holidays, disposable income to treat the children.

Those with a trained eye might notice how tense you both are. How you flinch and wince when he talks or makes public ‘jokes’ at your expense.

Even when the end of your relationship is public knowledge, he’s telling everyone how amicable it all is, and that you’re agreeing about everything, when in reality, you’ve been given his version of a settlement and you’re expected to agree and be grateful.

Conversely, he could be just ignoring you and your lawyer, pretending that everything is fine and it’s driving you crazy!

What does a high conflict divorce feel like?

High conflict divorce where the conflict isn’t obvious can be more scary than when it is. Why? Because you feel alone. Afraid. You feel that no one will understand or believe you. You probably believe that it’s all your fault anyway. He’s told you so often that it is so it must be true. High conflict divorce feels like you’re trapped in a sound proofed room and no one can hear you. Inside you’re crying. If this is you, ask yourself Am I in a high conflict divorce? If you feel like you keep asking that question, chances are you are. Keep taking care of yourself – self-care is so important.

What does high conflict divorce sound like?

High conflict that’s not obvious visually is often more noticeable through language. What’s said and not said. If you’ve lived in a high conflict situation for a long time, you’ll be familiar with the smiley passive aggressive behaviours that your soon-to-be-ex-husband exhibits in front of people he wants to impress.

You may be used to being told what to wear when you go out, and having your meal ordered for you. Him telling you that he knows you better than you know yourself is a regular occurrence,  furthermore, he’s better at making all sorts of decisions than you. You may have even convinced yourself that all of these things are true – that hasn’t always been the case, however. Once upon-a time, you did know you are a confident and competent woman. She’s still inside you.

Now that the ‘D’ word has reared it’s head, you may be being told that you ‘don’t need to worry’ that you’ll ‘be taken care of’ and that ‘you don’t need to worry about getting a lawyer who will waste our money’ in a ‘friendly but firm’ way. You know in your head and you feel in your gut that this is a warning and a threat. This isn’t an amicable divorce, this is a divorce with a high conflict individual who is used to getting his own way – with you and everyone else.

I’m in a high conflict divorce, what now?

Recognising you are in a #highconflictdivorce is shocking and scary. I understand. The first thing to do is to stay calm. Admitting this to yourself is an important step. You don’t need to do anything immediately unless you are in danger. If you do need to get out, do. Visit Women’s Aid for more advice (remember to click the cover my tracks button before you leave to wipe your visit foot print).

If you don’t need to get out immediately, take some time to create a plan that’s right for you. Your plan should include where you will go and what you will do in the short term, as well as thinking more longer term. Where you have time snd space, ‘reverse-engineering’ your plans is helpful. In coaching, we talk about ‘starting with the end in mind’ and, if you have the time and space to do this, it will enable you to structure your plans so that they work for you and your children in the longer term.

Finding someone who understands

This may sound obvious, but, if you’ve been the subject of brainwashing, gas-lighting or other forms of manipulation and abuse, I’ll bet that you don’t even trust yourself right now. Your’e not even sure if what you’re thinking is rational or reasonable because you’ve been told so often that the problem is you!

Finding someone who understands is crucial to moving forward.

One of my clients, I’ll call her Susan is a mother with a small baby. Up until working with me, she lived with her husband in an affluent neighbourhood in the USA. She has a full-time job.

She contacted me because she wasn’t sure if she should leave.

Her husband and his mother constantly belittled and criticised her, and her parenting style, yet did very little to help. He accused her of being ‘lazy’ and ‘selfish’ – projections of his own behaviour onto her.

But Tom could be so lovely and kind 5 minutes later, and act as if nothing had happened.

Susan was confused.

Was she really ‘lazy’ and ‘selfish’? After all, Tom could be so nice, maybe he was right?

The thought of leaving was hard. It’s not what she’d dreamt of for herself and her baby. How would he react if she left? What would the impact be on their child?

Susan oscillated between wanting to leave and wanting to stay. Sound familiar?

As a coach it’s not my job to tell client’s what to do. It’s my job to help them explore their options in a safe judgement free environment.

Accepting reality

As Susan and I got to know each other, we began to identify the patterns of behaviour that her husband and his mother exhibited. As I gently challenged her when she began to minimise his behaviour or take responsibility for it, we began to predict the things he’d do and say. Susan was able to become more of the observer of his behaviour because she viewed it with a different filter. As her confidence grew, she found the strength to leave.

Don’t label the behaviour

Over recent years, we’ve seen a rise in the use of the terms ‘narcissist’ and ‘borderline’ to describe people. Certainly in my coaching practice and in my Facebook Group, women will tell me their soon-to-be-ex-husband is a narcissist or borderline.

Does your soon-to-be-ex-husband have a clinical diagnosis?

It’s unlikely (I have one client whose husband does have a diagnosis).

Clinical diagnosis isn’t common because these individuals refuse therapy – after all, you’re the problem, not them!

Labelling won’t help you.

Not with them, and not with the legal or therapeutic professions either. You are often seen as the source of the problem when you make statements of this nature without any evidence.  It’s often the couple that is seen as high conflict rather than an individual within the couple.

What you can and should do, is describe patterns of behaviour and traits, without labelling.

Describe patterns of behaviour

Once you recognise the patterns of behaviour, it’s easier to predict how your soon-to-be-ex-husband will respond to all sorts of situations. Once you have this information its like having a key to a secret door. You see, knowing how he’ll respond means that you can make plans to deal with that eventuality before it happens, to minimise the impact as much as possible.

Educate yourself so you can educate others

Educating yourself about the patterns of behaviour you’re experiencing is the best thing you can do for yourself. It allows you to educate those whom you need support from such as your lawyer. Remember, even lawyers and therapists can get ‘hooked in’ by your soon-to-be-ex-husband’s behaviour and end up colluding with them quite innocently.

Narcissistic traits

If your soon-to-be-ex-husband exhibits narcissistic behaviours, its highly likely that he experienced emotional, and or physical neglect and or abuse as a child. Those with highly narcissistic traits have extremely low self-esteem though you might not think so. Often hugely successful, wealthy and well connected, these individuals use this success to hide deep shame and insecurity. The mask that they wear begins to slip during times of extreme stress. Divorce is one of those times. The core wound of the narcissist is shame. Divorce can be ‘shaming’ if it leads to criticism of failure (real or imagined) and loss of status.

You’ll already recognise how this has played out in your marriage and you can use this knowledge to predict and protect yourself now. His attachment style is likely to be more avoidant –  he’ll come close then pull away, leaving you feeling confused and alone. Your lawyer also needs to know this information as it has an important bearing on how best to communicate with your soon-to-be-ex-husband (more about that in the next blog).

Borderline traits

If your soon-to-be-ex-husband exhibits more ‘borderline traits’, you’ll be familiar with his more anxious attachment style, where he wants connection with you to the point of feeling stifled, coupled with angry outbursts when things don’t go his way. The border-line’s greatest fear is abandonment, again due to early childhood neglect. Feeling abandoned threatens the very sense of self that these individuals have, which means that during divorce they may swing from hopelessness and begging you to stay, threats of suicide, to angry punishing statements and behaviours, which will again leave you feeling confused and overwhelmed.

Moving forward

There can of course be a mix of the two! Recognising which patterns your soon-to-be-ex-husband exhibits will help you and your lawyer plan ahead. Susan recognised that Tom exhibited many narcissistic traits, which she understood came from his mother. I helped Susan accept that Tom will only change if and when he wants to (which is unlikely to happen whilst his continues his unhealthy relationship with this mother).

Susan’s choices were – to stay and accept the situation. Being bullied by both her soon-to-be-ex-husband and his mother, knowing that in time her son would likely treat her the same way, or leave and create a loving and safe environment for their son at least some of the time. Research has shown that children can develop a secure attachment style even if they only receive healthy parenting from one person. Is it easy? No. Possible yes. We’ll talk more about this in a future blog.

Susan moved out only a short time ago. Tom is being difficult and controlling about parenting time – turning up early or refusing to return their son. It’s not easy. Susan however is happier and more relaxed away from Tom. There’s a long way to go but her journey has started. She doesn’t need to have everything figured out right now in detail. Susan knows that she’s done the best thing for her and their son. She’s on her way to creating a new life for herself and a healthier environment for their son.

If you need help in a high conflict situation, ensure that you reach out to the right people. It’s okay to check their credentials and experience. Be brave and be bold. In 2019, I’ll be running programmes to support both ladies and like you and your lawyer to recognise and manage these situations. I’ll be talking more about that in the next blog.If you want to find out more about how I can help you, drop me a message.

Message Emma


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