Stress and high conflict divorce: what do you need to know?


date published

6th April 2023

written by

Emma Heptonstall Image

date published

6th April 2023

April is Stress Awareness Month. You don’t need me to tell you that divorce is stressful: it comes second only to the death of a partner or child on the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. But high conflict divorce takes stress to a whole new level.

In this deep dive we’ll look at the tell tale signs your divorce is high conflict, how stress might manifest, and, crucially, what you can do about it.

Conflict is part of divorce

It’s rare that anyone gets through the divorce process without some sort of conflict. However much you plan to be amicable, or ‘consciously uncouple’ there will be bumps in the road. Usually around money or children, or both.

Tension and emotional discomfort go hand in hand with divorce. In ‘standard’ divorce, though, it’s usually possible to work things through, perhaps with the help of a mediator or lawyer. Maybe you won’t get a perfect agreement or become friends. Maybe one or both of you will behave poorly every so often: it’s human that people lash out when they’re hurt. But you aren’t out to ‘get’ the other constantly, or ‘win’ at all costs.

High conflict divorce is characterised by controlling or coercive relationship dynamics. These were quite often present in the marriage, though you might only realise that with the benefit of hindsight. Someone with a high conflict personality isn’t interested in resolution: they will act to derail the divorce process, and hurt you in the process. We’ll take a look at these behaviours in more detail now.

20 signs your divorce is high conflict

These are all red flags when it comes to your divorce. They don’t all have to be in play for your divorce to be high conflict. But you may find a number of them ring true for you. If you read them and your head starts nodding, it’s likely you have a high conflict divorce on your hands:

    1. One party controls the other financially and/or emotionally
    2. One party constantly belittles the other, shaming them and reducing their confidence and self-esteem
    3. One party takes little responsibility for the family; they behave as if they are single or another child within the family
    4. One party refuses to acknowledge the other party’s feelings, needs or desires
    5. On separation, one party constantly contacts the other when it is both unnecessary and unwelcome
    6. One party refuses to respond to reasonable communication
    7. One or both parties complain of being the victim or abused by the other
    8. One or both parties make false accusations
    9. One or both parties accuse the other of abandoning the family, being neglectful, abusive or controlling
    10. One or both parties ignore professional advice, court directions or orders
    11. One or both parties fail to put the needs of their children first
    12. One or both parties alienate their children from the other parent
    13. One or both parties bad-mouth the other parent and/or extended family
    14. Cafcass or Social Services are involved, or a Guardian has been appointed
    15. One or both parties accuse the other of lying, gas-lighting or displaying personality disorders
    16. No agreements can be made or adhered to
    17. One or both parties hide financial information from the other
    18. Police or domestic abuse services have been used
    19. One or both parents frequently return matters to court to be looked at again
    20. Financial support is frequently denied to the detriment of the other party and their children

What is a high conflict person like?

While these behaviours might look very different (controlling finances is different to bad-mouthing you, for example), they all stem from the same place. The need for the high conflict person to be right and to be in control. So what does a high conflict personality look and act like?

Here are five common personality traits. You might recognise these from your time within the marriage, as well as from what’s happened since you separated:

    1. A sense of entitlement: can your soon-to-be-ex simply not handle it when things don’t go their way? We’re not talking disappointment here, we’re talking outrage and disbelief, or a refusal to acknowledge what’s happened.
    2. Empathy skills: they have none. The only lens through which they view the world is their own. They don’t want to have the children at the weekend because it interferes with their plans. No consideration about what the children might actually want and need.
    3. Superiority: you won’t hear a high conflict personality admit they were wrong, or apologise. If it turns out they were wrong, it certainly wasn’t their fault.
    4. Need for approval: they’re not secure enough for others to disagree with them. They feed off being told they’re brilliant, and can be damning of those who don’t toe the line.
    5. Ruthlessness: they don’t care about, or can’t even imagine, the emotional needs of others. So anything goes. If you’re not with them, you’re against them, and you deserve all the consequences that brings.

High conflict divorce and stress

So far we’ve delved into the signs that your divorce or your soon-to-be-ex are high conflict. And it’s pretty obvious that these traits and behaviours will lead to stress. But so often, especially if we’ve got used to living with conflict for a long time, we normalise symptoms of stress.

Take a moment for yourself now to really check in with how you’ve been feeling and acting recently.

Stress can have both a physical and emotional effect on you. In terms of physical symptoms, look out for:

    • Breathing difficulties and panic attacks
    • Blurred eyesight or sore eyes
    • Sleep problems and a sense of tiredness all the time
    • Muscular aches and headaches
    • Chest pains and high blood pressure
    • Indigestion, heartburn, constipation or diarrhoea
    • Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting
    • Changes in weight, whether it’s gain or loss
    • Skin changes, such as rashes or itchiness
    • Sweating
    • Changes to your period or menstrual cycle
    • Tension in your shoulders or jaw.

And alongside physical symptoms you may experience mood swings, depression, a state of anxiety, a loss of libido and feelings of dread.

You may find yourself behaving differently from normal. Perhaps your confidence or self-esteem has hit the floor. Or you’re more irritable than usual, not able to tolerate the usual banter from colleagues or chatter from the children.

What can you do to manage stress in your high conflict divorce?

If you’re having to manage high levels of stress, you will need strategies in place to look after yourself. Here are five things to put in place now:

1. Get the clinical or therapeutic help you need

First and foremost, you don’t need to cope with this alone. If stress is having a negative impact on you, especially if it’s ongoing, please seek help. There is no shame in experiencing unmanageable stress, and there is a range of support health professionals can help you access: from talking therapies, to medication or social prescribing activities. You are absolutely the most important asset in your life and divorce, and seeking the help you need is top priority.

2. Get the legal professional help you need

High conflict divorce is a very different beast to more standard divorce. You have no stable ground, because your soon-to-be-ex can’t be trusted to be rational or reasonable. Legal professionals and the court system are slowly coming round to recognise the impact high conflict has on how cases play out.
But, sadly, not everyone in the legal profession yet has the expertise or experience you need. I am the UK’s first High Conflict Diversion specialist, and, believe me, you need a strategy in place to manage your divorce. I can help you work through communication, boundaries, desired outcomes and keep you grounded and on track. I also highly recommend you only work with legal professionals who have experience of high conflict cases: ask around when you’re deciding on your legal team.

3. Get the foundations right

There’s a meme that goes round social media every so often that says humans are basically houseplants. And it’s true: there are some basics we need to get in place to feel well: food, water, sunlight and sleep. Think about your life at the moment. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you moving your body outside? Are you drinking enough water and nutritious food? I don’t want to sound like a nagging parent or add to your stress!
But there are simple things you can do to get these basics in place. Set a bedtime alarm. Carry a bottle of water around and make sure you drink throughout the day. Give yourself ten minutes to go for a walk in daylight. Get some healthy snacks in, so even if you don’t have chance to cook from scratch you’re not relying on crisps and toast all the time. Tiny changes can make a huge difference.

4. Strip back

There is a time to give back to the world and people around you, and there’s a time to give back to yourself. High conflict divorce costs you time, energy and money. You simply cannot do everything. Please don’t feel bad about withdrawing from volunteering responsibilities for a while, slacking off on the home cooked family dinners, or letting the household chores slide. Or any of the other things that add to your burden. You will get through this, and then you can be the star baker for school, or take on the extra project at work. Just not now.

5. Ground and affirm yourself

One of the most destructive things about high conflict divorce is that it erodes your sense of self. You start to question yourself: am I really being unreasonable? Am I really useless with money? Am I a terrible parent? Seek out the people and the activities that ground you. The friends who have your back, and can help you stay as positive as possible. Work with me! I am an honest mirror. I have your best interests at heart but will also tell you the truth.

Do the things that help you feel good, and calm: whether it’s going to a yoga class, having a run, or watching a favourite comedy.

Want me in your back pocket?

Getting the right validation, guidance and support is absolutely vital to manage the stress of high conflict divorce. And I can do that for you. I have a range of 1:1 coaching services that mean we get straight to the heart of what you need, unpick the BS and get you a realistic plan that will work. Book in your free call to see how I can help, today.

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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  1. Sonja Wharton

    Hi Emma I’ve spoken and done a small workshop with you. I’m at point of form e exchange. I have a lawyer that is experienced in High conflict divorce and I have secured a great barrister. I’m struggling emotionally and also don’t want to keep engaging lawyers when I don’t need to. My husband is not exchanging form e. And Because he is refusing to mediation. I’m having to go back to request mediation to be able receive a Miams form to be able to book it into court. Obviously you can see my husband is making it difficult every step of the way. Is this something. You can support me with and can you tell me how much is the Monthly cost and is there a minimum contract etc. I feel I have listened to all your advice and only engage lawyers when I need to. I’ve done all
    My form e myself to keep costs down to a minimum.


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