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Divorce

Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a High-Conflict Person

These tips can help you prepare and manage the legal and psychological process.

Key points

  • High-conflict people often have Cluster B personality disorders or traits, which can get worse during a separation or divorce.
  • Abusive behavior and false allegations are more common when separating or divorcing from someone with a high-conflict personality.
  • It helps to carefully prepare for the predictable behavior of a high-conflict person when separating and going through the divorce process.

High-conflict people are preoccupied with blaming others, use a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, often have unmanaged emotions, and may engage in extreme behaviors, as I have explained in prior posts. They may or may not have Cluster B personality disorders, such as narcissistic, borderline, or antisocial. When they are faced with the loss of an intimate relationship, such as a marriage, close relationship, or dating relationship, they often escalate their extreme behaviors and can become abusive and/or make false allegations in public and in court. In the best of cases, going through a divorce involves several legal decisions and an emotional roller coaster. The following tips can help prepare for and manage these problematic behaviors when a high-conflict person is involved.

Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

1. Prepare Yourself to Be Safe

Abusive behavior and false allegations are common for people with high-conflict personalities, and such behavior can catch you by surprise. If a spouse has engaged in domestic violence, the risks of more violence often go up at the time of separation, not down. If a high-conflict partner has borderline personality disorder, they may feel abandoned and go into an abandonment rage. If a high-conflict partner has antisocial personality disorder, they may become violent in order to prevent the loss of power and control over their partner. Likewise, a high-conflict spouse may make false allegations against you in order to discredit you in public and in court. Having a safe place to go may help you protect yourself physically from abuse. Keeping accurate notes about confrontations may help you in future court hearings when defending yourself against false allegations.

2. Prepare Yourself Legally

When dealing with a high-conflict person, it helps to get legal information as soon as possible, so you know what can and can’t happen in your case. Many times a high-conflict spouse will threaten, “You’ll never see your kids again,” or “I’ll get all your money in court,” or “I’ll tell the judge what a jerk you are.” Most of these are uninformed angry statements and very unlikely to happen. For example, family courts want both parents involved in raising their children. Many states have community property laws or equitable property laws that require the equal division of most of the assets. And telling the judge you’re a jerk is usually irrelevant to the decisions that need to be made and the judges don’t want to hear it. However, there are many legal loopholes—and high-conflict people often find them—so that it’s wise to get a 1-hour consultation with a family lawyer in your area as soon as possible, even before you separate if you can.

3. Prepare Yourself Emotionally

High-conflict people with Cluster B personality disorders are often domineering, vindictive, and intrusive. When they feel defensive, these traits seem to increase. Many people are quite surprised (and others are not) to find out that their best friend and marriage partner for many years has now become very manipulative and persuasive in court. Yet, at the same time, you are expected to share the children and exchange them on a regular schedule, which means you may need to encounter them on a regular basis. In order to keep your cool and your own emotional well-being, it helps to have key support people in your life. You may have family or friends you can rely on, but don’t over-use them or they may burn out. It’s often wise to find a counselor who can help you deal with the emotional roller coaster and also may help you understand or predict your former partner’s high-conflict behavior.

4. Communicate Wisely

Everything you write in emails, text messages, and on social media can be used against you in court. Plus, the way you correspond with your soon-to-be ex-spouse can make a lot of difference, in terms of whether you escalate their high-conflict behavior or decrease it. I always recommend the BIFF method of communicating in writing, which stands for brief (just a paragraph usually), informative (objective information, no emotions, no opinions, no arguments), friendly (“thanks for responding…”), and firm (just try to end the conversation without any negative comments that invite further responses). This approach helps keep things calm, and also looks good in court, if your email conversations end up there. I developed this method over a decade ago and I have co-authored a book specifically for separated and divorced parents on this subject: BIFF for CoParent Communication.

5. Try to Negotiate

While it may seem unlikely to work, most divorces cases do settle out of court, even when a high-conflict partner is involved. By negotiating, you can keep things calmer and the high-conflict person has less reason to become defensive. Since divorce laws in most places have been established for decades, the standards they use are well-known and can be used to reach agreements. It can help to use a family mediator and/or lawyers who are good at negotiating.

6. Prepare for Court

Try negotiation first, but always be aware that you may end up in court with a high-conflict partner. Keep good records, communicate respectfully, gather information about all accounts (before you separate if possible), and get good consultation from a lawyer when you have legal questions. If you have court hearings or a trial, it really helps to hire a lawyer. While many people represent themselves these days in family court, when you are dealing with a high-conflict person you will need to be ready for their manipulations plus their lawyer’s knowledge and skills.

Conclusion

Using these principles, many people have managed their divorces successfully, even with a high-conflict partner. For more on how to protect yourself in a divorce, see my book Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The second edition is now available and addresses all of these topics and more.

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