Recognizing a High Conflict Divorce
Contempt of Court
I sat in the Courtroom in utter disbelief that the Judge had just ordered both of my children to appear at the hearing the next day. I was in the middle of a divorce from my husband of 23 years and it was going very badly.
In a power play by the Judge (also a long time colleague of my ex-husband, and the ex-wife of my lawyer), she ordered me to bring my children to Court so that she could interrogate them. The girls, aged 12 and 15 at the time were traumatized enough by their parents’ High Conflict Divorce, so it was beyond my comprehension that the Judge would put them through more torment by forcing them to take sides in the Courtroom. If I didn’t bring the girls to Court the next day I would be found in Contempt of Court and fined, or put in jail or lose temporary custody of my children. If I brought them, how would I ever help them heal from one more emotional assault? My ex-husband (a divorce attorney himself) was in full agreement with the Judge about bringing the girls into this snake pit. Obviously I could not count on him to protect them. So I did the only thing a mother could do…neither the girls nor I showed up for Court the next day.
The divorce process taught me a lot about what many of my clients go through so in one way it was useful if not pleasant. But the suffering of a High Conflict Divorce is not something that resolves quickly, especially if there are children involved. I suspect that my children and I will deal with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress for years to come.
What makes a High Conflict Divorce? Why was my divorce in this category when I am a professional psychologist? Why on earth would a Domestic Relations Judge (and a woman) be so insensitive to the needs of children? Is there another way to get these kinds of couples to resolve their divorces more amicably? While there are no easy answers I hope to answer these tough questions in a moment.
Three Kinds of Divorces
Two things make a High Conflict Divorce possible… Motive and Means. Many people view their divorce as high conflict because it is stressful and because there are conflicts and confrontation. But the truth is that very few divorces are actually high conflict in the strict sense of this term. In my professional experience there are three kinds of divorce scenarios.
- Business-like divorce. The parties recognize that they are no longer in love, maybe never were, and just want to go away. So they part amicably and unless there are children they have little contact in the future. If there are children, they handle things fairly and respectfully in order to provide quality parenting for their children.
- Friendly divorce. This couple recognizes that they probably would have made better friends than sweethearts, so the parting is amicable. Often these couples do indeed remain friends and share parenting comfortably with each other and future spouses. When people hear about this kind of divorce they are surprised but in truth about one third of couples actually have a friendly divorce.
- High Conflict divorce. Unfortunately this type of couple cannot resolve their differences in either a business like manner nor in a friendly way. They create a war that is costly and damaging to the children and to themselves. In fact the damage they wreak spreads a wide net into their extended families and friends, and sometimes even into the greater community. In the long run this couple pays the price because they may never be able to restore their lives to healthy functioning.
Before getting to the motive and means behind high conflict divorce, let’s take a little detour to better understand the type of person who usually initiates a high conflict divorce. Author Patricia Evans calls them “Controlling People.”
In a nutshell, controlling people are narcissistic and low on empathy. The narcissist acts as if he or she is the center of the Universe. In his or her eyes, their beliefs are the “right” ones. Their perspective is the “right one.” Their actions are the “right ones.”
A natural outcome of the narcissistic personality is a lack of empathy for others. While the narcissist is well aware of his or her feelings they have no concept of how the other feels. When you don’t know how another person feels it is extremely difficult to understand the other’s beliefs, perspective, or actions. Therefore, the narcissist is often negative and critical of the other if they disagree.
Loving relationships require empathy to mature. If you have empathy for your spouse you know how he or she feels. This means you can relate to their beliefs, perspective and actions even if you do not agree. If you can relate you can be respectful and kind. Being able to step into another’s shoes is vital to a healthy relationship and to your own personal growth. Because they are different than us, our sweetheart in life, helps us to see things in new ways…ways we could never have understood without empathy.
While controlling people are narcissistic and do not understand you, the other ingredient for a high conflict divorce is the narcissist’s counterpart, a person who works for equality in relationships. This type of person is often very nurturing and self-effacing, and has a strong sense of justice. Thus while the controlling person works toward a win-lose solution to problems, the nurturing or egalitarian person works for a win-win solution. According to Patricia Evans, this places the win-win person at a disadvantage. While the egalitarian person keeps empathizing with the controlling person in an effort to create a win-win solution, the controlling person views this behavior as weak and an opportunity to conquer.
Essentially the controlling person creates a power struggle with the unwitting egalitarian. This keeps the egalitarian “on the hook,” so to speak because they can’t seem to realize that they will never create a win-win solution with a controlling person. Sadly it appears to be true that narcissists marry egalitarians and create high conflict divorces all too often.
Motive and Means
Personality alone is not enough to create a high conflict divorce. The individuals also need Motive and Means.
“Means” generally equates to money and/or power. If one or both parties have enough money to wage a war and they are not concerned with an unhealthy outcome (or not aware of this possibility), this leads to a high conflict divorce. But generally healthy people will quit the conflict when they recognize that they are throwing their money away. Only those snared by the narcissistic power struggle will continue to the “death.”
Another source of means is power, which can come in a variety of forms. Being a divorce attorney is a source of power. Having a personal relationship with the Judge is a source of power. Being personally acquainted with the local police and the city prosecutor helps. Being famous or having media connections is a source of power. All of these things can be used to create a high conflict divorce.
A third source of means is being irrational and tenacious. Even without money or power, a person can create a high conflict divorce through simple means. There is an axiom that the most irrational and inconsistent person in the system is in control of the system because…they don’t follow the rules. If the controlling person is uncooperative, antagonistic, and dishonorable, a high conflict divorce will take shape.
Then there is “motive.” If a person feels aggrieved and they are narcissistic, they can feel justified doing just about anything to trash and burn the other person. This includes dragging the children into the fray. And no matter how self-effacing the egalitarian is, he or she will fight back if pushed far enough. Thus the motive to protect and defend is aroused. Unfortunately trying to fight a narcissist is like dousing yourself with gasoline and lighting yourself on fire.
Solutions to High Conflict Divorce
In spite of this disheartening look at high conflict divorce, I still believe it is possible to prevent or at least better tolerate a high conflict divorce. Anyone going through a life changing experience like a divorce, high conflict or otherwise, should seek the support of a therapist, your church, and other groups supportive of your experience. The Kanji for “Crisis” equates to “danger” and “opportunity.” In order to see the opportunities in something as tragic as a divorce you will need a level head. While friends and family may love you, your therapist will be more objective. You definitely need objectivity to stay out of the power struggles that the controlling person can create in a high conflict divorce.
If at all possible work with a mediator to craft a win-win solution to your divorce. Be willing to compromise and to walk away with a “half fair deal.” In the long run, walking away from your money and possessions is worth it to avoid the acrimony. Remember, too, that it is only your perception that you are getting an unfair deal. With the dollars you save on legal fees you can free up your life to explore a new and healthier way of living.
On the other hand if you are up against a party who refuses to negotiate honorably, then you have to use another strategy. And the most important thing to consider is that your desire to be reasonable and fair may be exactly what does you in. When you seek a win-win solution but the other party seeks a win-lose solution, the other party is in the driver’s seat, at least in our current Divorce Court environment.
So here is the simple answer if you do not wish to stoop to the underhanded level. Do your best to secure a fair, mediated agreement. If you cannot swing a mediated agreement with the controlling party, and in very short order, don’t hesitate and hope that he or she will somehow change their mind. You need to act swiftly before you are inundated. Give them what they want and count your blessings that they allowed you to get away.
Never, ever, go to Court with a controlling person who wants nothing more than to trash and burn you especially if they have means (i.e. money or power). And never, ever, go to Court with a controlling person if you have children to protect. The Court system is designed to determine a winner and a loser, not resolve conflict amicably and certainly not to protect the innocent. If you are really a win-win type of person, you are no match for a system that does not hold the attacker responsible, but instead requires you to defend yourself against the constant attacks of the controlling person. You just can’t keep up.
It is not easy to take the high road in these kinds of situations. Regardless of what you lose in the way of material goods or even psychological status in your community, trust that taking the high road means that you and your children will be able to sleep soundly at night. The gift to yourself and your family is to walk away from these Divorce Wars with your integrity and compassion in tact. That does count for something in God’s Eyes.
Post Script March 23, 2019 – How to Fight Injustice
I received a note from a reader who was surprised that I didn’t offer more advice on actions to take regarding these toxic relationships. She was alarmed that this column may imply that you are a helpless victim when divorcing a narcissist or a person I call EmD-1 (Empathy Dysfunction – 1).
After re-reading this column, that I wrote nearly 15 years ago, it occurs to me that it might need a bit of updating. Clearly I would never tell you to give up yourself or your children, as my reader suggested. In fact, the advice I would give, and do give, comes right out of my latest book, WHEN EMPATHY FAILS: How to stop those hell-bent on destroying you.
I learned a lot from my personal trauma of divorcing a narcissist, who also happened to be a divorce attorney. For a decade-plus of my life, I spent half a million dollars on legal fees, and hired 16 attorneys to handle various legal matters launched against me. I was assaulted, stalked, harassed, and falsely arrested three times. I spent several nights in the Clark County jail, but was never convicted of anything. My children were traumatized too and victims of parental alienation. All of this because I dared to file for divorce from a man with EmD-1.
What did I do besides hire lawyers? Lots of things that I detail in the book. I hired a forensic psychologist because I needed the wisdom of a professional who knows the minds of psychopaths and narcissists. I read everything I could get my hands on regarding hostile divorces and parental alienation. I called the media and got on radio and television shows. I was able to get several columns written in the US~Observer, a news source that investigates wrongful prosecution. I filed government complaints. I even ran for City Council. But most importantly I never gave up hope that the truth would come out, even when few believed me, even my children. . . and then I wrote a book about all of it.
I think I do know what it means to fight back against those, “. . . hell-bent on destroying you.” But I am not going to promise you that you will not get off without a scratch. I didn’t. I had plenty of losses, but I learned to build resilience in the face of adversity. While I juggled credit cards, and refinanced my house to pay the legal debt. . . while I ran interference for my children who were daily threatened by their father and the neighbors. . . while weekly I defended myself against accusations by the police and city officials . . . I also kept in mind that I am not alone. I wouldn’t let the terror get the best of me.
I want you to know that you are not alone either. If you are going through a hostile divorce, and you feel that no one understands or can help, please know that you are not alone. I will listen and help all I can.