Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How to Handle a Toxic Divorce

When an ex puts your emotional, physical, or financial well-being at risk.

The following is a guest post by Susan Shofer.

Most divorces begin with hurt. Both parties may point the finger at the other person for the demise of the marriage. Accusations of infidelity, mismanagement of money or intrusion of in-laws are relatively common. As the divorce process begins, there may be animosity and heated discussions as decisions regarding the division of property, bank accounts, child visitation and custody arrangements are being made. Over time, people typically adjust to their new situation and the animosity diminishes. Even if one or both parties claim they don’t like each other, attempts are made to establish a civil way to communicate with one another, especially if there are children involved. Sometimes, divorced couples establish a “new” relationship and a friendship develops.

A toxic divorce, however, is a completely different scenario. Many courts define it as a “high conflict divorce” where each party escalates the contention. The toxic divorce, as I define it, is when one party wants to dissolve the marriage in a more equitable way while the other person not only refuses to cooperate, but they create a consistent string of chaos and ill will. Toxic behaviors may include stalking, harassment, threats made to one’s physical safety and health, hiding marital assets, sullying a person’s reputation, damaging property, and alienating children from the targeted parent.

Toxic divorces tend to last longer than a typical divorce; some as long as 8 to 10 years as one person continues to block the divorce progress at every turn. As the targeted partner tries to develop a new life, the former partner will often escalate the contention and extend the toxicity to the target’s new friends, a love interest, family members or employers.

The first line of defense in navigating around a toxic divorce is finding an attorney whose definition of a toxic divorce includes predicting the possible extreme behavior that can be exhibited by the warring partner. These behaviors may include refusing to pay child support, violating child custody or visitation, attempts to destroy the reputation of the targeted spouse with their friends, family, and employers and to alienate the children. It’s critical that the targeted partner’s attorney has the skill-set to mitigate much of these behaviors by defining a very specific settlement written into the divorce decree.

The items in the decree, such as child custody/visitation, division of property, and child support/alimony must be defined with great detail. For example, a visitation schedule that reads, “The children are to visit with the father (or mother) every other Friday for the weekend” may work for most of the divorced population whose efforts are to protect the health and well-being of the children. However, a statement like this will be a nightmare for the targeted parent. A person whose mission is to be contentious will likely bring the children home at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday nights. Although bringing the children home at this time may fall within the guidelines of the agreement, the action to bring children home late on a school night makes it evident that the intentions are to upset the targeted parent.

To avoid these potential situations, a more specific statement such as, “The father (or mother) is to pick up the children every other Friday, beginning on (the first date) at 4:30 p.m. at (named location). The father (or mother) is to return the children to the mother (or father) (named location) the Sunday of each of his/her weekend no later than 6:00 p.m. (EST).

Additionally, I strongly suggest that someone going through a toxic divorce secure a court appointed judge for their case. Since toxic divorces typically spend a great deal of time in court, a judge who is familiar with the case can make better decisions regarding the case and impose sanctions/punishments, if necessary. If a judge determines that one of the parties is creating a long-term unrelenting toxic situation, the judge has the power to take drastic measures to diffuse the contention. For example, if a spouse refuses to pay child support or reduces it without court approval, a judge can take action by writing a court order to have the monies taken out of the person’s salary to be paid directly to the recipient.

Another important step to mitigate a toxic divorce is the use of trustees. Trustees are attorneys that help you dissolve marital assets such as cash, real estate, cars, boats, art, vacation homes, pensions, retirement accounts or jewelry. Expecting the contentious spouse to be “fair,” while selling or re-appointing marital assets, is unrealistic so all property must be handled by a third party. Trustees will itemize everything and decide how they are to be divided, where and when.

A contentious unrelenting divorce will wreak havoc on one’s physical and emotional health so it is imperative to assure that self-care is a priority. It is common for people to place their children’s needs, their jobs and household responsibilities above their own health. I believe it is essential to carve out specific time each day to refresh and nourish oneself. This may be achieved through physical activity or quiet meditation. Whatever the preferred modality for rejuvenation, it must be consistent so that one has the emotional and physical strength to effectively circumvent the constant and escalated conflicts.

It is essential to have a strong support system, even if that is only two or three people. These should be people who are trusted and empathetic to what is going on. It’s a good idea to have a “check-in” system with one or two people where a text, email or phone call is made every day to assure that the targeted spouse is safe. This is especially necessary if there has been physical violence in the past. If there have been threats of or actual physical violence, a report should be made to the police and a protective order may be put into effect. Protective orders set boundaries that keep the offender a specified distance from their target. Protective orders are very serious and violations of them may result in jail time.

A toxic divorce is very challenging and will push the targeted individual to exhaustion. A targeted person needs to remember that they cannot change the behavior of the person who has made it their main objective to create chaos for the target. The only way to effectively diminish the impact of the toxic divorce is to limit one’s response to their antics and maintain as much emotional composure as possible. Toxic divorces are overwhelming so it is better to take each day one at a time, each step one at a time.

Susan Shofer is a divorce consultant and founder of The Toxic Divorce. For more information, visit her website.

More from Katherine Cullen MFA, LCSW
More from Psychology Today