Divorce is a life-changing process, and even when situations are amicable, there can be feelings of anger, frustration, and blame. Generally speaking, though, former partners can navigate these emotions to reach a divorce settlement.
But it’s different in high-conflict divorces.
High-conflict personalities (often known as HCPs) can inflame disagreements, prolong legal processes, and create enormous stress for families—and they’re more common than you might expect. In 20% of divorces in the US, one or both parties exhibit high conflict behaviors.
This might sound intimidating, but we’re here to tell you that there is a path forward. By understanding the actions of high-conflict personalities and working with a supportive network of professionals, you can find better ways to engage with your former partner and make progress toward your goals.
What is a high-conflict personality?
High-conflict personalities encompass many traits, but social science research and those versed in personality work note that generally, such individuals frequently display some or all of the following behaviors:
- Blaming others
- All-or-nothing thinking
- Unmanaged emotions
- Extreme behaviors
- Personality disorders or traits
These traits can make the divorce process challenging, but understanding the impact of the way these behaviors can present in the divorce process and how to plan for and handle them can make the way forward more navigable.
How does a high-conflict personality impact divorce?
A high-conflict personality intensifies the challenges of divorce. While the specific outcomes depend on individual circumstances, the presence of high-conflict personalities in divorce can lead to prolonged legal battles and heightened emotional distress for families.
The lack of compromise also often results in a lose-lose situation, with neither party achieving their desired outcomes.
Moreover, high-conflict divorces can be damaging to any children involved. The ongoing post-divorce conflict also makes co-parenting incredibly difficult, further destabilizing the children’s lives.
Managing high-conflict personalities and divorce
If you’re in a relationship with a high-conflict personality and you’re in the middle of a divorce—or one is on the horizon—the first step should be to reach out to a divorce attorney who is experienced with toxic relationships. Working with an attorney who understands these personality traits can help you build a strategy that addresses your goals and anticipates their behavior and responses during the legal process.
In the meantime, here are some tips to make your relationship with your ex more manageable in the process and long term, in the day-to-day.
Keep to the facts
HCPs rely on blame as a tactic for engaging with people, and in divorce, there are many opportunities to rehash old situations and emotionally charged topics (and to make up new ones that take on a life of their own). Focusing on practical or logistical information can help shortcut conflict by not giving HCPs the validation they want. It can also help prevent or mitigate delays or distractions during the process.
Take, for instance, communication about household belongings. Instead of going through the “whats,” “whys,” and “whos” of purchases, provide relevant receipts, transaction histories, and other variable information and use them to lead your conversation.
Establishing boundaries when someone has a high-conflict personality is important in protecting your well-being.
One crucial boundary to set is how you will communicate with your ex; it’s easy for lines to be blurred and crossed if there aren’t strict expectations, especially if you have a child in common.
When setting communication boundaries, you have options. Your attorney and other professional support team can help you decide what seems reasonable in your situation. For example, you might limit communication to email and only about parenting time concerns. In some instances, it may be helpful to communicate only through your attorney, a mediator, or a parent coordinator to ensure your boundaries are respected.
Have a plan for documenting everything
High-conflict personalities may introduce false narratives or accounts that paint themselves as victims. Keep records of all conversations, whether in person or digital, plus any relevant documentation that may provide factual evidence of your circumstances.
Not all documentation is equal—your attorney can help you create an appropriate strategy for documenting problems. For instance, if your co-parent is consistently late when dropping off the kids, you could create calendar events that document the exact time of each drop-off and note any instances of custody violations.
Another approach is to save copies of relevant emails or text messages. This documentation could be useful later if you need to provide evidence in court. Again, your attorney can help you come up with a personalized strategy to track issues.
Seek professional support
An attorney with experience in high-conflict divorces can provide constructive strategies to navigate a contentious process. They understand how high-conflict personalities respond to legal scenarios, and they can help you set realistic goals and expectations for the process.
Additionally, mental health professionals are an essential resource. There is a lot to process during a high-conflict divorce, so make sure you’re allowing yourself to do so. A therapist plays an especially vital role in helping you create a toolbox of skills to deal with both the divorce and challenging behaviors from your ex.
Litigation or alternate dispute resolution: which is right for a high-conflict divorce?
If you’re imagining how your divorce might proceed, it’s essential to know that you have options. While litigation may be necessary in some cases, mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution may also be just as, if not more, effective. The main thing to remember is that your approach should be based on your specific circumstances.
Through the process of litigation, generally it is the court that determines the outcome of legal issues. While some divorces that entered the court system can be settled, others go to trial. This process—especially if a trial is required—can be time-consuming and inflame already-existing disputes.
However, some high-conflict divorces may benefit from litigation. Advantages of litigation include deadlines that hold the parties accountable and mechanisms for compelling disclosure, such as cases where a party may not be providing documentation. Additionally, there is the potential for court-imposed penalties. If one party is uncooperative or willfully noncompliant, judges may impose sanctions or award fees.
When approached strategically, mediation can be a great tool for high-conflict divorces.
In mediation, a third-party neutral works with the parties to resolve the issues of their divorce settlement. Sometimes this happens without setting foot in the courtroom, and sometimes mediation can be a tool used simultaneously with cases working their way through the court system, in an effort to stop acrimony and reach agreements.
While family law attorneys are not required for mediation, it’s common for each party to work with their own lawyer, as well as the mediator. Experienced divorce attorneys can help parties advocate for their position and work within the nuances of the law.
Because mediators are skilled at navigating complex conversations, this approach can help reduce the “temperature” of the situation. Moreover, mediation focuses on compromise, which facilitates a more future-focused mindset for the parties involved.
Regardless of the path you initially choose, it is always possible to change your mind. You can start with mediation and then switch to litigation, or vice versa.
An experienced New Jersey divorce lawyer can help
High-conflict personalities create added stress in the divorce process. An attorney with experience with these kinds of divorce can help you create a strategic, personalized action plan.
The New Jersey divorce attorneys at Jacobs Berger employ our “de-stress divorce doctrine” to help minimize your stress at every step. Make an appointment to coordinate your strategy session with our team.