The costs of denying you’re in a high conflict relationship


date published

7th November 2022

written by

Emma Heptonstall Image

date published

7th November 2022

Too many of my clients have a big, hidden struggle when it comes to divorce. Bigger than what to do about the children. Bigger than how to agree finances. They can’t accept they are in a high conflict marriage. They have spent years living with the behaviour patterns of a high conflict personality, and they have normalised it. The price of this is enormous, and I don’t just mean financially. In this blog we look at the costs of denying you’re in a high conflict relationship. And I’ll share how you can start to reverse the damage.

So what can happen if you’re in a high conflict separation and don’t recognise it?

Your financial arrangement is less likely to be favourable

Let’s start with the practicalities. If you’re separating from a high conflict personality and you don’t recognise it, the chances are you will do less well financially. And if you have children, it’s likely you’ll get a less favourable arrangement for them as well. Why? Because you are not operating from the same set of rules.

In standard divorces, even when things get heated, the dynamics are usually such that you have equal power. Yes, your soon-to-be-ex might be a weasel. They may fly off the handle or not play fair. But they won’t have a pattern of systematically trying to get one over on you at every turn.

In a high conflict relationship it’s all about power. It’s not really about money, or about access to the children. It’s about winning. And someone with a high conflict personality type cannot bear to be in the wrong, or to lose. It’s catastrophic for them.

But that doesn’t mean it’s obvious. If you’re used to being persuaded to their way of thinking (and high conflict types are gold medal manipulators) then you can find yourself agreeing to their ‘reasonable’ terms. Or, if they do get nasty with you, they may well be all charm and logic to everyone else. It’s confusing, and disorientating, and if you’re not prepared, it can cost you, big time. You’ll find yourself sleepwalking into an arrangement that is entirely stacked in their favour.

Your self-worth will be on the floor

More importantly than anything else, not seeing your high conflict ex for who they are will rip shreds into your self worth. They will already have done a number on you. How many times have you been blamed for something that wasn’t your fault? Or made to feel stupid, either through namecalling or being ignored? How many times have you been made out to be the aggressor, while you’re sure it wasn’t like that?

These patterns of behaviour are all typical of a high conflict personality – you can read more about them here. And because they build up over time, you can find yourself isolated and weakened without any understanding of how you got there.

Damage will already have been done. It’s repairable: we’ll take a look at how in a moment. But it’s only repairable if you see what’s happening for what it is – a high conflict personality manipulating you. If you don’t recognise that, you’ll continue to feel confused, to think of yourself as incapable and weak. When the reality is, that’s not who you are at all.

You are likely to be here again

If you’ve normalised the dynamic between you and your soon-to-be-ex, then it sets the model for future relationships. As I’ve said, high conflict behaviours can be subtle. They won’t necessarily be shouting at you all the time. The abuse won’t necessarily be physical. But they will derail you. They will blame you, leaving you questioning your sanity. They will often jump between extreme emotions: bursting into tears or showing excessively demonstrative affection could happen as much as angry episodes erupting out of nowhere.

If you don’t recognise their behaviours as high conflict, they can appear loving. Of course they want the best for you, you will tell yourself. Of course they’re entitled to get upset. That’s what love looks like. And, before you know it, you’ve landed yourself with another high conflict partner, and the pattern repeats.

 My spouse is high conflict – what now?!

If you have realised your soon-to-be-ex is a high conflict personality, do not panic. Yes, it will make divorce more complicated. But you can move forward from here, and the good news is that recognising your situation for what it is means you can take action.

The first thing to do is gift yourself a heap of compassion. I know from years of working with clients that soon after they realise what their spouse is, the self-flagellation starts:

‘Why didn’t I realise sooner?’

‘How could I let them take advantage of me?’

‘I thought I was smarter than this!’

‘So many years wasted on that creep!’

Acknowledge these thoughts and let them go. They do not help, and they aren’t fair. Anyone can find themselves in a high conflict relationship: any age, any gender, any education-level. Other people’s bad behaviour is not your fault. You are not stupid. Please remember that.

Think about what support you need to deal with this new realisation. Do you need support to process trauma? This is where trained professionals come in. Friends, family and facebook groups of others in your position can offer sympathy, but they are not equipped to help you deal with trauma. Their advice and interventions may lead to trauma bonds, keeping you stuck. Specialist therapies such as EMDR are worth investigating.

You will need a good solicitor. Make sure the person you hire has worked with high conflict before. They will need to understand the need for clear boundaries and how to de-escalate communication that might otherwise spiral into expensive distractions.

Your soon-to-be-ex won’t play fair when it comes to finances. They want to win, and money provides a way to exert control. If you have the resources, and the assets in your marriage warrant it, get a financial adviser. It’s so important to be clear on the numbers. Your soon-to-be-ex will do whatever they can to shirk their responsibilities – they won’t even see that they are doing anything wrong. Keep things practical and leave emotion out of it.

Divert high conflict before it takes root

Awareness is so important for taking charge of your divorce. And you will need to take charge. Going with the flow is never a good idea in divorce, but it’s especially disastrous when it comes to high conflict divorce.

I’m trained in high conflict diversion. That means I can help you understand your position and strategise. Your strategy isn’t only about the practical outcomes you want, it’s about developing the emotional tools you need to communicate with your soon-to-be-ex over the coming months (and beyond if you have children). These are strategies for life. When you work with me you’ll stay grounded and accountable. That means you’ll move forward, and whatever your soon-to-be-ex throws at you, you’ll manage it. I’ll be by your side.

Book in your free 1:1 call today, and let’s get this high conflict relationship out of your present and firmly in the past!

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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