When your family and friends don’t understand your high conflict divorce
Making the decision to leave is always an act of courage. It shows you are taking charge of your life. You are not settling for a marriage that is no longer healthy. When you are leaving a narcissist or other high conflict personality it’s not an exaggeration to say the decision to leave is no less than heroic. It is a huge, brave step away from a toxic situation into… what? Because the future is unknown. Yet you know you have to go there. You know you need to take back control.
High conflict marriages aren’t always visible to the outside world. While, sadly, there are still plenty of women suffering physical violence at the hands of their partners, that’s not the whole story. Abusive marriages can involve emotional manipulation and financial control. And, what’s more, the abuser can appear the model of respectability and charm on the outside. Which means if you gather the courage to leave, those around you might be surprised. And they might not always be as supportive as you would expect. So in When your family and friends don’t understand your high conflict divorce, we’ll explore what to do when your family and friends don’t understand your high conflict divorce.
Is your marriage high conflict?
Many of my clients come to me before they’ve realised they are in a high conflict marriage. They’re not being hit. So how is it high conflict? Refuge, the UK charity that supports women and children, describes domestic violence as: ‘any violence or abuse that is used by someone to control or obtain power over their partner. It can include physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, emotional and financial abuse. If you alter your behaviour because you are frightened of how your partner will react, you are being abused.’
Reflect on that for a moment. Do you ever change what you do or who you see because of what your spouse will say or do? For many of my clients, the answer is yes. And the realisation that they are in a controlling, abusive situation is hard to come to terms with. It doesn’t happen to women like them. Except it does.
You can read more about the signs that your marriage is high conflict here.
You are not wrong
Because conflict can be subtle, it’s easy to second guess yourself. Chances are your spouse has been gaslighting you in various ways for some time. They’ve told you you’re taking things too personally, or they didn’t say that (and if they did they obviously didn’t mean it the way you took it). They may well have positioned themselves as the victim – especially if you left. Their narrative is they were simply doing their best to give you a good life and you left them.
Your high conflict spouse will sincerely believe they are in the right. They are incapable of believing otherwise. High conflict people believe they are always right, and if they make a mistake it’s because others made them or misled them. They don’t own their behaviour at all.
And this sincerity, combined with the charm that high conflict personalities often deploy to the outside world, is very effective. If someone is absolutely certain of something, it’s much easier to believe them than if they have doubts.
So I want you to know that you are not mistaken, or exaggerating, or making it up. If you’ve got into a pattern of changing your behaviour because you’re scared of your ex-partner’s reaction, then you have experienced domestic violence. You are in a high conflict marriage. And the decision to leave is the right one.
It’s not your job to educate others
Just as you might doubt yourself in the face of your soon-to-be-ex’s version of events, it’s likely some of those around you will too. And there will be a range of different factors at play that determine how you respond to their lack of support. Your perplexed mum who was completely taken aback at first but quickly backs you up is a different kettle of fish to your competitive colleague who tells you what a mistake you’re making, for example.
So I advise you to give your loved ones a chance. If their initial response is shock, or questioning, or they say what a nice person your soon-to-be-ex is, it doesn’t mean they think you’re lying. They might just need time to come to terms with the news you’ve given them. No-one’s perfect, and they might be insensitive or put their foot in it at first. Don’t write them off yet.
That said, you don’t need to give them endless chances to show their support. And you don’t owe them lots of your time and energy in trying to convince them you’re telling the truth. Point them in the direction of education and resources, like my blog on high conflict marriage linked above. And if they still don’t get it, let them go, at least for now. Focus your attention instead on the people who really are there for you. And, most importantly, focus it on yourself. What’s important is you and your future.
Trust yourself first
It can feel like your whole world is coming apart as you embark on divorce. But the centre of your world is you. So this is the time to show unprecedented amounts of self-compassion. Maybe you’ve got thoughts going through your head like:
“I married a narcissist, how can I ever trust myself again?”
“They’ve made all the decisions for so long, how do I even know what I think?’
“I don’t have the strength to cope with divorce”.
If you do have these thoughts, or your own personal versions of them, you’re not alone. Don’t layer guilt on guilt by feeling bad about feeling bad! Firstly, remember that you are not to blame for anything your high conflict ex does. Sure, if you had your time again you wouldn’t take the marriage vows, you’d run a mile. But that doesn’t mean you should have seen it coming, or you were stupid for staying as long as you did.
And secondly, now is the time to focus on now and next, not the past. Whatever control your ex-partner had over you in the past is gone. Yes, of course they can still threaten, and use the children as power plays, and lie. I’m not saying the way ahead is blissfully trouble-free. But you see them now. You see them for what they are and that gives you enormous strength and power.
Build up trust in yourself, like you strengthen your body, with regular exercise. Make a commitment to do something achievable and positive for yourself every day. It might be something as small as making a cup of tea and reading a book for five minutes to give yourself some rest time. It might be contacting a trusted friend to ask for support, or making a phone call to sort some life admin out. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do all the things at once. Just decide on one gift each day you can give yourself. And do it.
Always on your side
As a divorce coach, I’m always on your side. I want what’s best for you, and for your future. I want to give you space to be heard, for your abuse to be witnessed. And then I want to help you make a plan that will work for you.
That doesn’t mean I always say what you want to hear. I might challenge you. I’ll help you know what the work is you need to do – but it’s you that needs to actually do it. I know from experience though – my own and that of my clients – it’s so much easier to do the scary but necessary things when you have a coach on your team. You learn so much about what you’re capable of. And you find yourself creating a future on your own terms.
If your friends and family don’t understand your high conflict divorce, rest assured I will. I’m a trained High Conflict Diversion Specialist, and I can help you get through these next months with a strength and clarity you never knew you had. Book in a free 30 minute consultation here.
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 www.emmaheptonstall.com