How to plan the divorce process when your divorce is high conflict


date published

6th November 2021

written by

Emma Heptonstall Image

date published

6th November 2021

How to plan the divorce process when your divorce is high conflict


If you’re in a high-conflict marriage you need a plan. And more than that, you need a plan that works with your high conflict situation. The approaches that I recommend starting with for most standard divorces simply won’t work in your case. In How to plan the divorce process when your divorce is high conflict we’ll explore why, and what you can do instead.


Safety first

If you are at all worried about your safety, your plan needs one step. Get out, get to a safer place. Whether that’s a refuge (you don’t need to have been beaten up to be taken seriously), a friend or to family members. Your safety is the absolute priority here. Get yourself somewhere safe. Take any essential paperwork you can readily lay your hands on. But your safety is the top priority. 


Stay and plan if you can

If you don’t feel in danger there is no urgency to get out. Once you’ve summoned the courage to leave it can be tempting to do the deed straight away. I get this – but if you can, stay put for a while longer. Hold your decision internally, and put all your energy into getting ready.


There are two main reasons for this: firstly, it will help you settle into your decision. So you’ll act with strong but calm energy when the time comes, rather than the excited buzz of an unthought-through frenzy. Secondly, it will give you chance to take quiet, practical action that will help you in the long run. You can think about where you will go, how to manage finances solo, and what you actually need to take with you. 


You’ll notice I’m assuming you’ll be the one actually leaving the marital home once you’ve decided to leave. And it might be that you don’t have to – your spouse might agree to leave. But, especially in high conflict cases, you can’t count on it. So you can only control what you can control. It’s worth having a plan for where you will go and who will help you. 


Get your paperwork together

Your future self will thank you if you can get organised. Any divorce will require you to know your financial situation. If you’re with a controlling spouse you may not have had access to financial details. Try to track down accounts. The bank will be able to give you access to anything held in your name, either jointly or individually. 


Gather together important documents, such as birth certificates and passports. You will need these in the future. And if there are valuable items that belong to you, ensure you have them too. You can’t guarantee that your spouse will readily hand over anything without being ordered to by the court.


Let go of amicable divorce

In an ideal scenario, you and your soon-to-be-ex would agree your marriage is no longer working and then work together to have a peaceful separation with a fair financial agreement. Unfortunately, the ideal scenario rarely comes to pass in its entirety, even when high conflict isn’t part of the equation. Divorce is emotional and it can bring out the worst in all parties. However, in standard divorces, you can do your best to keep things on track so egos don’t flare too often, so that you and your ex-spouse avoid coming to major blows. 


If you are leaving a high conflict personality the chances of you having an amicable divorce are zero. I’m sorry to be so blunt about it, but it’s true. Your soon-to-be-ex will most likely fight every decision tooth and nail. Sometimes because they genuinely believe they’re in the right. Sometimes because they can’t bear to see you ‘win’.


The court will recommend mediation as a first step in divorce. And, usually, so do I. Mediation can keep the heat turned down in your divorce, ensure both you and your soon to be ex have your say and can be a lot cheaper than having a judge decide. But in high conflict cases mediation can be dangerous. Why? 


Because high conflict personalities are clever. Often they come across as charming, and they love to present themselves as the victim. They are masters at manipulation. Mediation conversations just give them more fuel to work with. What you need is clarity and strong boundaries.


Be a grey rock

High conflict personalities thrive on arguments. They will seek disruption and manipulation wherever they can. Being confrontational doesn’t work – they will win, it’s their home turf. Being friendly to them doesn’t work – they will look for ways to use anything you say against them, or see it as evidence you want to reconcile.


What you need is to be dull. To become the least interesting part of their world. This has become known as the grey rock technique. The idea is to disappear into the background so you don’t give them any more ammunition to play with. What does this look like? Here are some tactics:

  • Be brief. Answer their questions. But with the bare minimum. “How was your weekend?” “Fine, thanks”. Not “Fine, thanks, how was yours?” or “Fine thanks, we went bowling.”
  • Don’t get emotionally involved. If they are getting angry or threatening you, don’t take the bait. It’s not cowardly not to engage, it’s critical to your wellbeing. Focus on your breathing and exit the conversation as soon as you can.
  • Don’t share any personal information, including on social media. Don’t give them any ‘in’ to your world. 


Only pay people who are specialists in high conflict

The legal system has far to go in supporting victims of domestic abuse. Not every legal professional is experienced in supporting clients in high-conflict situations. The same goes for therapists and divorce coaches. So, if you have the means to build a professional team around you (and if you do – I strongly advise that this is a wise investment in high conflict cases), vet who you work with. What do they know about high conflict divorce? How many clients have they supported in this situation? 


Build a trusted circle

Just as you need to be cautious with the professionals you engage, be cautious with who you share your thoughts and feelings with. High conflict personalities love to be the centre of attention and they are often charismatic. They may well convince friends and family that they’re the injured party, or that you’re exaggerating (or downright lying) about your marriage. 


So work out which friends and family members have your back. And stick with them. You don’t owe the world your stories, reasons or explanations for leaving. The most important people (and the most important person here is you) will know. 


Document everything

One of the reasons people stay in high conflict marriages for so long is that they don’t recognise what’s happening. High conflict personalities are skilled at painting themselves as the victim, or minimising the harm they do. They often gaslight – telling you something didn’t happen when you know it did. If this has been your reality for a while it can become normalised. 


Once you recognise that your spouse is controlling you, whether financially, emotionally, or physically, start to keep a record. The first thing this will do is serve as a reminder of all the little ways they are undermining you. This will help you keep your resolve as you leave. The second thing it will do is help the court and any professionals around you to understand what’s going on. 


Look after yourself

If reading all that makes you feel exhausted, know I get it. I’m sorry this is happening to you, and that life is hard. Sadly, this is a situation you can’t ignore and hope it gets better. It won’t. Your high conflict spouse won’t change. So you need to be the one to take action – to protect yourself and your children into the future. 


I can be there as a safe person to turn to when the going gets tough or your resolve weakens. I can also remind you it’s ok to take a break! You (and your children) are your biggest priority in your divorce and it’s important to look after yourself.


If you’d like help to plan your high conflict divorce, I can be there for you. To find out how I can help simply 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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