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Understanding What High Conflict Divorce Is

By Sarah Jacobs, Esq.

Divorce is a significant life transition, and for most people, it evokes complex behavior and emotions. Anger, sadness, mood swings, defensiveness—these feelings understandably crop up as people navigate the changing landscape of their lives. (And, of course, this list isn’t exhaustive—there’s a wide, wide range of ways that people experience divorce.)

In some circumstances, though, behaviors and emotions can go from “difficult but understandable” to damaging. When disagreements between spouses persist or escalate during a divorce, often without signs of settlement being reached, it may indicate a high-conflict divorce.   

What is a high-conflict divorce?

There’s no precise legal threshold a case meets to have it meet the standard of a high-conflict divorce, but generally, this concept refers to divorces in which the divorcing couple has significant, pervasive, escalating disagreements that they are unable to resolve amicably. 

These types of divorces are typically associated with behaviors that can make progress on a settlement difficult to impossible. They might look like one or both spouses:

  • Refusing to compromise
  • Refusing to negotiate
  • Filing multiple applications on issues small to large
  • Being unable to communicate without arguing

High-conflict divorces often include contentious issues like child custody or spousal support. In some cases, these relationships might involve a history of abuse or domestic violence

High-conflict scenarios in divorce   

Every divorce is different, and high-conflict divorces can arise for various reasons. However, there are some situations where they may be more likely to occur, such as when a partner has a high-conflict personality disorder like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD) or when mental illness or substance abuse is involved. 

Narcissistic personality disorder 

Before diving into NPD and BPD, what is a personality disorder? According to the American Psychiatric Association, a personality disorder is a way of thinking, feeling, and behaving that is enduring, deviates from the expectations in the culture, and causes distress or problems with functioning. Many different personality disorders exist, and they aren’t all associated with high-conflict relationships or divorce. 

However, some are, such as NPD and BPD. Someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) may demonstrate behaviors like:

  • Excessive ego and feelings of self-importance
  • Gaslighting (manipulating someone into questioning their own perception of reality)
  • Willingness to exploit others for their own benefit
  • Lack of empathy
  • Easy to anger or offend
  • Need for constant recognition, reassurance, or attention

How NPD can make a divorce high-conflict

In many ways, the divorce process is like throwing fuel on the fire for someone with NPD. While their ego may be damaged by the idea of getting divorced, they may grab onto the thought of “winning” the divorce. Alternatively, they may use the mechanisms of the legal system to try to punish their soon-to-be ex. They may attempt to: 

  • Engage in financial abuse by withholding money or financial records
  • Levy false accusations against their former partner
  • Delay proceedings by refusing to negotiate
  • Use children or other family relationships as bargaining chips

These behaviors can be immensely distressing, especially if you aren’t working with an attorney who has helped clients navigate a high-conflict divorce. However, there are many strategies that an experienced attorney can help you implement if your spouse demonstrates these behaviors, from how to tell your ex that you want a divorce to setting boundaries during the divorce process.

Borderline personality disorder  

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is also frequently associated with high-conflict divorce. Someone with BPD may demonstrate behaviors like:

  • Unstable emotions
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Self-destructive decisions
  • Potential suicidal ideation

Unlike NPD, individuals with BPD are more likely to seek treatment and management of their condition. Therapy and medication can help reduce symptoms and allow for better emotional regulation. However, given that divorce can be a turbulent experience, it’s not uncommon for BPD episodes to be triggered.  

How BPD can make a divorce high-conflict

BPD symptoms can make communication difficult, and individuals with BPD sometimes present as volatile, manipulative, and aggressive during the divorce process. 

These behaviors can have a significant impact on how the divorce moves forward. For example, someone with BPD might engage in impulsive actions like reckless spending and refuse to disclose financial information. This can create complications as you try to divide assets or negotiate child or spousal support.  

Fear of abandonment can also manifest in legal proceedings. For example, an individual with BPD might make unreasonable demands about child custody and parenting time as a way to avoid feeling alone. 

Mental illness and substance abuse in high-conflict divorce

Let’s start with this caveat: Not all high-conflict divorces are the result of mental illness, and not everyone living with these issues will experience a high-conflict divorce.

However, some situations involving mental illness can contribute to or lead to this kind of divorce. These conditions can intensify emotions, leading to unpredictability, impaired decision-making, and combativeness. 

For example, someone dealing with untreated or unmanaged bipolar disorder may struggle with emotional regulation on a hot-button issue like child custody. Instead of looking for alternate paths, they may double down on their asks and refuse to budge. This response can lead to a higher degree of conflict where there might not have been otherwise.  

In these situations, mediating can be a helpful strategy. While mediation requires compromise, trained mediators are skilled at helping lower the temperature of heated issues and refocus conversations on realistic solutions. 

Substance abuse disorder, on the other hand, can also lead to or exacerbate high-conflict divorces through impaired judgment and irrational or unpredictable behaviors.  

For example, individuals dealing with substance abuse may: 

  • Adopt combative postures on different legal issues in the divorce, making it more challenging to reach a resolution.
  • Ignore requests during the discovery process.
  • Refuse to follow parenting time plans or restrictions on visitation rights.  

Divorce cases involving substance abuse can require extra care and nuance. To enter into an agreement, individuals must be sober enough to understand it. In some cases, a guardian ad litem—an individual appointed by the court to represent the best interests of a child or incapacitated person (which in the case of substance abuse may mean someone whose judgment is compromised or needs oversight)—may be necessary to allow legal processes to move forward.

How long does a high-conflict divorce take?

Every situation is different, but high-conflict divorces can take longer to resolve than others. 

There are many reasons for these delays. As noted above, one or both parties might use stalling tactics to frustrate one another during a high-conflict divorce. They may level frivolous threats, requiring shifts in strategy. Legal teams may need additional time to research, investigate, or prepare for issues to be resolved. 

As we said, though, every divorce is different. Just because a divorce is high conflict doesn’t automatically mean you can’t implement strategies to handle legal processes as efficiently as possible. Mediation can be an effective tool in these situations. Even if you’re proceeding through litigation, you may be able to use mediation to resolve some areas in your settlement. 

It’s critical to work with divorce attorneys who understand the proverbial playing field and who can give you advice based on not just the law but the practicalities of your situation. An experienced attorney can help you identify realistic goals, set expectations, and develop a strategy to help you get there.

Get the support you need and deserve through your high-conflict divorce

High-conflict divorces can be complicated and often require a balance of your needs and your emotions while also protecting yourself and your family. 

An experienced high-conflict divorce attorney can be your strongest ally during this time. They advocate on your behalf, ensure you understand your options, and help you navigate the process with all the necessary resources. 

At Jacobs Berger, our family law attorneys employ our De-stress Divorce Doctrine to help minimize your stress through each step of the process with practical guidance and realistic legal support.

For help navigating a high-conflict divorce, contact us to schedule your strategy session with our team.

Contact Our Morristown Attorneys Today

At Jacobs Berger, our attorneys are experienced in protecting our clients across Madison, Randolph, Tewksbury, Morristown, and the greater Morris County area in all family law-related issues.

To schedule a strategic planning session with one of our experienced team members regarding your particular case, please contact us online or through our Morristown, NJ office at (973) 354-4506.