How to communicate in a high conflict divorce

If you’re in a high conflict relationship the usual rules don’t apply. Sadly, it’s unlikely to be possible to have a collaborative, open tone to communications. With a high conflict partner, anything you do say may be given in evidence – against you. So the key is to say only what is necessary.

Here’s the breakdown on navigating communication with your high conflict soon-to-be-ex-husband.

Get a barrier in place

The key to managing any conflict is to take the heat away. When you have children it’s a challenge.  Insults, mind-games and drama will only inflame things, so don’t engage.

Do you need to read all your emails? Ask a trusted friend to view emails from your soon-to-be-ex-husband.  Choose the calm rational friend who has your back! The friend who shares your outraged sense of injustice won’t help right now.  Let them screen messages and pass on only the pertinent information. This immediately gives you distance, frees up your headspace and allows you to focus on the practical issues at hand.

If that’s not possible, create a barrier for yourself every time you open up a message. Remind yourself of your goal (divorce) and what the important things to sort out are. Try and filter out anything else, remembering that anything your ex says is a reflection of them rather than you.

Remember BIFF

When you do reply to messages, keep to the point. Bill Eddy, in his 2014 book, ‘BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People, Their Personal Attacks, Hostile Emails & Social Media Meltdowns (2014) talks about the need to be:

  • Brief: focus on moving the divorce process forward and don’t get into dramas
  • Informative: stick to the facts and the information required.
  • Friendly: you have the power to set the tone from your side. Role-modelling how you want communication to be can be helpful
  • Firm: be clear. Demonstrate how you won’t be pushed around.

Set boundaries

Use BIFF to set boundaries with your soon-to-be-ex-husband. Remember BIFF isn’t a one hit wonder. Think of boundary setting as being like puppy training. Unfortunately you can’t tell a puppy to do something once and expect them to comply! It takes repeated effort, but with consistency, in ignoring unwanted behaviour and rewarding helpful behaviour with attention, the puppy learns what to do. This is the approach you need to take with your soon-to-be-ex-husband.

You need to do this with yourself too – it is no mean feat staying cool when dealing with  high conflict.  Don’t be alarmed when your buttons get pushed! A good rule of thumb is to check-in with yourself when you want to hit reply… what’s driving your urge to reply now? If it’s anger or any other sort of negative emotion, acknowledge it, and return to the email later. Do something positive for yourself instead.

Use technology to help you

They say there’s an app for everything – well now there’s a tool to help keep children at the centre of your family and avoid the emotional tugs-of–war: Our Family Wizard. This nifty product helps with scheduling and managing family-related finances. Our Family Wizard is also very handy for keeping communication calm and traceable.

You can use the app for all your communication by text and email. All communication has a ‘tone meter’ set. This means that you will be reminded about the tone of your message if it is unhelpful, aggressive or threatening. You get the opportunity to rewrite it. And the best bit, for a high conflict situation? Communication within the app is permanent. It cannot be removed. You can authorise access to other professionals – in the USA the court has access too. So it’s a great resource for keeping everything transparent. It costs £79 per year though I can help with discounts and a free account. You can find out more and get signed up here. Do message me if you’d like to know more.

Stay grounded

Staying grounded is one of the strongest tools in your emotional toolbox when divorcing someone with a high conflict personality. It’s natural that your emotions will fluctuate between the urge to rage and fight, the desire to bury your head in the sand or just to throw your hands up in despair and throw in the towel.

What’s crucial is staying focussed on what’s important to you. Is there a difference between what you’re entitled to, what you need and what you want? It’s important you recognise this. Sometimes the three line up neatly. Often, they don’t. It’s totally okay to hang on in there for what you’re entitled to.  But it’s worth thinking about what your priorities are.

If what you’re entitled to is absolutely what you need, you have less flexibility, and will benefit from building a strong support team around you to get through both the legal and emotional rollercoaster (read about who you need on your support team here). If you do have a choice you may decide not to claim everything, in favour of getting free from your marriage as soon as possible. Either way – keep your end goal in mind to help guide you as you decide. Do it from a position of self-awareness and power rather than resentment and one-upmanship and your decisions will be on track. And, of course, I’m here to help you along the way too.

Educate your lawyer

All lawyers  train to provide legal advice. They are not all trained to deal with high conflict personalities. When you’re looking for a lawyer to support your high conflict divorce, do your research and ask questions.

Ask your lawyer if they are familiar with just how these personality styles operate and the patterns of behaviour they exhibit. Are they aware of the ways in which these personality types can be triggered and are they willing to work with you on a plan to manage your situation?  Don’t be afraid to keep looking until you find someone you are comfortable with and who takes you seriously.

Try and keep to the BIFF protocols with your lawyer as well as your soon-to-be-ex-husband. A dispassionate and balanced account of your situation  lets your lawyer help you more than you using their expensive time to vent your frustrations.

Is your lawyer a BIFF follower?

And check that they are BIFF followers too! You don’t want the lawyer who says, “I love a good court fight”… yes, a client’s lawyer really did say that! To be clear, this client did end up in court. Her second lawyer had the measure of her soon-to-be-ex-husband however! She kept things as calm as possible. As I keep saying, managing communication with high conflict personalities is about taking heat away – you do not need your legal representation adding fuel to the flames!

Tailored programmes, resources and support for women managing high conflict divorce are coming soon. To be the first to find out about these new services (the first of their kind in the UK), sign up here

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The Divorce Alchemist

Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is 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 practising 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. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com

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