How to get ready for a high conflict divorce


date published

27th September 2020

written by

Emma Heptonstall Image

date published

27th September 2020

How to get ready for a high conflict divorce


Divorce is not the happiest time of your life – fact. If your marriage isn’t working, it is a helpful and necessary step to a happier life. But while it’s happening the best you can hope for is that it’s peaceful and straightforward. 


Unfortunately, if you’re married to someone with a high conflict personality, that’s unlikely to happen.


So in How to get ready for a high conflict divorce, we examine what you can do to turn down the rough, turn up the smooth and navigate your high conflict divorce with grace and power. 


Are you in a high conflict relationship?


Let’s start with whether your relationship is high conflict or not. There’s a chance you’ll have a gut feeling about this already. But to be clear – conflict is part of any relationship. It is part of life and it is part of being human. If you and your spouse niggle at each other every so often, it’s unlikely you’re in a high conflict relationship.


What about if you’re rowing all the time? Well, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re married to a high conflict person either. It may be that you have got to a point in your relationship where you just don’t get on. Whatever each of you does rubs the other up the wrong way. This may be temporary, because you’re going through a rough patch. Or it may be because your relationship is coming to an end. 


Either way, pressing reset will help. You can do this yourselves in a neutral place (ideally with other people around – a socially distanced café perhaps). And talk through what’s going on for both of you, calmly. Or you can seek support through a relationship counsellor or mediator. 


This sort of mutual anger and resentment in a relationship doesn’t (by itself) mean you’re in a high conflict pattern. When I refer to high conflict personalities I am talking about a set of behaviours that can leave the other person disorientated and disempowered. Let’s look at these now. 


How does a high conflict person behave?


The main difference between arguments with a high conflict personality and those without are whether they make sense. Let’s take a small example. You resent that your spouse never takes the bins out (or vice versa). And you have a heated row about it. 


In typical conflict scenarios, the arguments will more or less stay on topic. You may say things you regret, and go over the top, but both of you are sparring equally. And you both know what you’re talking about.


In high conflict scenarios, you will find all manner of confusing logic thrown at you. The other person will accept no blame or wrongdoing, and will twist facts to justify their position. Their emotions will roam wildly out of control.


There are four main ways high conflict people behave:

  • They never accept blame themselves; they always project onto others
  • The HCP doesn’t see nuance; everything is all or nothing
  • The HCP has wild emotions; they are not able to contain their anger or negativity
  • HCP’s show unpredictable and unreasonable behaviour; they do things most others would consider unreasonable.


You can find out more about whether you are living with a high conflict person here.


How to get ready for a high conflict divorce

Prepare yourself mentally


So, if you are married to a high conflict personality, the first thing you need to do is accept it. As I’ve said, the ideal scenario in divorce is peaceful co-operation. That is the opposite of what you can expect in high conflict cases. 


Your soon-to-be-ex will try to thwart you at every turn. Sometimes actively – maybe by lying, or instructing their solicitor to oppose your plans, even when they are fair. Sometimes passively – for example by ignoring your requests for information – even if they come via a solicitor. Or denying they agreed to something that you discussed last week. 


This feels unfair. Why did you get this deal? What makes your best friend have a happy marriage, with none of these problems? Why, when your sister divorced two years ago was it smooth running, and you have to deal with all this? 


It is unfair. The trouble is, there are no answers to these questions of fairness. You can spend a lot of mental and emotional energy tying yourself in knots. The thing to do is to accept that you are where you are. You do not want to stay married to this high conflict person (good!) and so you need to deal with the situation you have. 


I’m not saying this is easy. But it is necessary. And the rest of How to get ready for a high conflict divorce will help you get prepared. So you can remove as many of the obstacles to divorce as possible, without your ex getting in the way. 


Know your numbers


I am famous for saying you should never divorce without knowing your numbers. You need to know all your marital and individual assets and liabilities. Your soon-to-be-ex is unlikely to hand these to you on a plate. So you may need a little longer to access them, and you may need some support. 


But don’t let this put you off. Knowledge is power. Start to get together all your facts and numbers as soon as you can. Log-in to neglected bank accounts, go through old folders. Keep everything organised, digitally and in paper files. Don’t worry about gaps for now – the more you can gather, the easier it will be to identify and fill the gaps down the line. 


My Amazon bestselling book ‘How To Be A Lady Who Leaves’ is a great starting point to help you get organised. 


Keep records of discussions


High conflict personalities are notorious for stating black is white. Be prepared for your ex to deny anything that they agreed to by phone last week. So, as far as possible, keep all communication and agreements in writing. Backed up by evidence. 


If you have children a third-party app such as Our Family Wizard is fantastic for ensuring you have an uneditable record of arrangements in one place. 


Get your support in place


You can’t rely on your ex for support or co-operation. So build your circle. You will want moral and practical support from friends. Those you can vent and rage to (do not rage at your ex – more on this in a minute!). People to help with childcare or food. People to look after you as you do the hard but necessary work of taking control of your divorce. Create a safe emotional bubble around you as you embark on your divorce journey. 


You may also need expert help. People who have been in high conflict relationships often need help unpacking their trauma. Get help with your emotional needs – either from a counsellor to work through the past, or from a coach like me to plan for the future.


If finances are complicated you may want to seek independent advice. This is worth it – especially as your ex will do everything they can to stand in your way. 


Take charge of communication


You will know from your experience of living with this person that conversations get twisted. That they will claim you did and said all sorts of dreadful things. You can’t control that. What you can do is play your part in keeping the heat down low. 


Hard as it might be, that means de-escalating conversations. Not rising to the bait. Don’t engage. That doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with them, or letting them win. It means you’re not adding fuel to the fire. (And if it makes you feel better, they will hate this, because they thrive on conflict!)


So keep your communication to the point, and fact based. Do not get de-railed. And keep your feelings out of it, whatever gets thrown in your direction. 


Get divorce ready


This autumn I am running Get Divorce Ready for women who want to take action. It’s for you if you want to make your life as simple as possible before and during divorce – whether you’re divorcing a high conflict personality or not. If How to get ready for a high conflict divorce resonated with you, you’ll find the two weeks we spend on dealing with high conflict personalities invaluable.


With detailed workbooks alongside weekly calls in a small group there is plenty of scope to get to grips with your situation. Let me help you take as much stress as possible out of divorce by getting organised and getting empowered. 


You can find out more and join the waitlist here

About Emma

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 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


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