Five ways to support yourself in a high conflict divorce


date published

30th October 2021

written by

Emma Heptonstall Image

date published

30th October 2021

Five ways to support yourself in a high conflict divorce


All divorce is stressful, there’s just no escaping that. But high conflict divorce? That brings the sort of mind games, bullying tactics, and manipulation that can leave your sanity in tatters. The repercussions can last for years. So in Five ways to support yourself in a high conflict divorce, we tackle the five absolute must-dos and don’ts to support yourself when you’re in a high conflict divorce. 


Do: recognise you’re in a high conflict situation

The very first step is to acknowledge to yourself that you’re in a high-conflict relationship. The truth is most high conflict or abusive marriages don’t involve you getting physically attacked. They’re much more subtle than that. And people with narcissistic character traits are clever, so you find you’re second-guessing yourself or minimising the impact of their behaviour. But it’s time to recognise what’s going on. So what are the signs of a high conflict relationship? Here are three of the most telling:


They’re never wrong

Someone with narcissistic tendencies can’t admit they’re wrong. They don’t make mistakes, or on the rare occasion they begrudgingly admit things went wrong, it certainly wasn’t their fault. Probably, it was yours. But if not yours, someone else’s. They need to be demonstrably better at life than others, and they belittle others to prove they’re on top. 


Their needs are paramount

A high conflict person does not show empathy. They might put on a good performance, in public. They might be very charming. At the start of your relationship they might have showered you with affection and grand gestures. But, it was all smoke and mirrors. Ultimately, they see the world through their lens and they need to ensure the world runs according to their needs. This can show up in big ways (they won’t leave the marital home) or small (they won’t collect the children from dance class because it’s inconvenient to them). 


They don’t like you being independent

This one is a huge red flag it’s time to go. Do they resent it if you spend time with friends? Or perhaps you’ve done well at work and they bring you back down to earth with a snide remark? Or perhaps they check your phone, or police your spending? Again, these controlling behaviours can all be done subtly, which is why they can be so hard to call out. It doesn’t have to be as extreme as them taking your bank cards and locking you in the house. Constant questions about where you’ve been or what you’ve been spending, or emotional manipulation to make you feel bad when you’ve spent time with other people are all signs of control too. 


Remember, you don’t need to have cuts and bruises for there to be conflict. You can read more about recognising the signs of a high conflict relationship here. And the number one priority is your safety. If you feel unsafe, get out. 


Do: seek people you can trust

If you recognise that your relationship is high conflict, it’s absolutely paramount that you get a supportive circle around you. And, sadly, this can be more difficult than it first appears. Remember, narcissistic people can be charming and clever. So to the outside world, it looks as though you’re just being difficult, or selfish for wanting to leave. 


If family and friends repeatedly back your ex-spouse and advocate for their needs rather than yours, cut them out. This doesn’t need to be dramatic. You can simply stop giving them your time and attention, and focus on the people who do have your back instead. 


These people might come from your social circle. They might come as professional support. Refuge is a charity that supports victims of domestic violence (with emotional and financial abuse included in that category). They offer a range of free and confidential services here


You may also want to seek support from a therapist, coach and get financial and legal advice. Remember to check whether the people you go to are experienced in working with high conflict situations. High conflict divorce needs a different approach to standard divorce. Make sure that any professionals you work with – especially your legal team – are aware of and experienced in representing victims of high conflict marriage. 


Do: work with what you can control

High conflict personality types will do everything they can to control you. Rules of fair play don’t apply. They will gaslight you, they will lie to others, they will do what’s right for them regardless of how it affects you or the children. Unfortunately, there’s little you can do to change this. You may already have spent years making excuses for their behaviour: “They had a difficult childhood” or “It’s because they need me so much”.


Being nice hasn’t changed things though, has it? You may have kept the peace, more or less. But it’s always on their terms. So now it’s time to set your own terms. 


Don’t get me wrong, I really am not advising you to make a big stand and declare you’re leaving straight away. In fact, with high conflict spouses it’s important you spend some time getting prepared first, if it’s safe to do so. 


But I am inviting you to make an internal mental shift. To focus on your own needs and your own future. And to make plans with those in mind rather than with your spouse’s needs in mind. You won’t have the answers to all your questions straight away. It will feel overwhelming. But work with what you can control and take tiny steps towards your independent future. 


Don’t: give them what they want

Narcissistic personalities thrive on chaos. They want you to be unsettled and upset because it keeps you small and it keeps them powerful. They want you to question yourself. They even want you to get angry  – because it’s all ammunition they can use against you. They can become the injured party and spin their own stories. 


Don’t play the game. They will try and get a reaction from you. They will try to undermine you. Your job is simply to be doggedly persistent in creating your own future. Standing up to a high conflict personality involves engaging with them as little as possible. They’re beyond the point of seeing sense or changing their ways, so don’t waste your energy. Focus on yourself instead. Be civil. But don’t react to their outbursts. Don’t add fuel to their fire. 


Don’t: blame yourself

One of the best ways you can support yourself in a high conflict divorce is not to blame yourself.

So many of my clients blame themselves for being in a high conflict situation. They say things like:


“I should have never married him”

“I should have recognised it sooner, I’m so stupid”

“If only I’d helped her get therapy when we were dating, maybe she’d be different now”

“I can’t believe I’ve stayed for so long”


I want you to know, unequivocally, that this is not your fault. You are not responsible for someone else’s behaviour. If they shout at you, or sulk with you, or intimidate you, and then blame you for it, they are carrying out classic narcissistic behaviour. And the fault lies at their door, not yours. If you’ve lived with it for years, of course it’s hard to recognise that your situation isn’t healthy. It’s your normal. There is no shame in being where you are now. 


And don’t blame yourself if the road ahead feels overwhelming and hard. Once you’ve recognised you’re in a high conflict relationship it can be easy to think “Right, well I need to get cracking and leave”. But, in reality, you have healing and grieving to do. You are not likely to be 100% on top of your game. So if you don’t spring into action, don’t let that be another reason to feel bad about yourself. Recognising your situation is a huge step. And other steps will follow. Small steps are fine. Focus on your future and you will get there. 


I can help

I specialise in high conflict separation and divorce. I know that you need a different approach. I know that you need a safe place to process the past and present, and plan for the future. I know that the legal system still has far to go in understanding high conflict – but that there are things you can do to give yourself a voice. 

Let me be that safe person for you. You can book in a free 30 minute consultation here.

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 and group programmes. 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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