High-Conflict Divorce: How to Deal with and Recover from It
- Will divorce involve high-conflict?
- What does high-conflict look like?
- Best ways to handle high-conflict
- Recover from a high-conflict divorce
Every divorce involves some level of conflict. But some people use lies, intimidation, manipulation, or other harmful behaviors to slow the divorce process and hurt the other person as much as possible.
Researchers say about 20% of couples are “highly conflicted,” and they take these habits with them when they divorce.
If you’re engaged in a high-conflict divorce, know that you can get through it. But you may need help to protect your interests during the split. And you might need more time to recover from the damage done during the process.
Will your divorce involve high conflict?
Successful marriages involve kindness. Couples must collaborate carefully to build their estates and raise their children. Some divorcing couples remain kind while they split. High-conflict divorce is different.
You could be involved in a high-conflict divorce if you or your partner do the following:
- Demonize one another
- Argue endlessly without coming to a resolution
- Antagonize one another via several phone calls and text messages every day
- Hire multiple lawyers who also antagonize both parties
In a divorce like this, couples are arguing for the sake of argument. The goal is to hurt one another, even if that means drawing out the divorce process.
What does a high-conflict divorce look like?
Fighting couples take longer to split than collaborating parties. A high-conflict divorce can take months — if not years — to complete.
During this long process, couples will do the following:
- Put goals last: You'll ignore what your children, debtors, employers, and others need so you can focus on hurting your partner.
- Escalate: Even tiny questions become huge fights in a high-conflict divorce. Couples may resort to calling one another names, too.
- Attack preemptively: You may feel like you're always under siege from your partner, and you may launch an assault to break up the pattern.
Constructive behaviors involve saying nice things, discussing issues calmly, and listening actively. Couples in high-conflict divorces may not use any of these tools.
Best ways to handle a high-conflict divorce
Splits like this are difficult, but you can move through the divorce process and build a new life. These tips may help.
Get to the point
Couples argue about resolvable issues about 31% of the time. All other arguments involve personality differences and style.
If you're fighting with your partner about something you can't solve (like the way the person walks or a decision that person made a decade ago), drop it. Stay tightly focused on the issues you must solve to push the divorce forward.
Take a breath
Your partner sent you a vitriol-filled text message, and you're furiously typing a response. Stop, breathe, and put down your phone.
Remember that you're not required to answer your partner's attacks immediately. Sometimes, you don't have to answer them at all. Give yourself time and space to think before you respond and make things worse. You’ll be better able to respond with a clear head later.
Look for the kind path
You don’t have to agree with — or even like — your partner to get what you want in a divorce. But you must find a way to discuss things rationally. Do whatever you must to get through discussions peacefully.
Try outside help
A mediator can help you move through difficult discussions without worsening your relationship. Some mediators work independently with both couples, ensuring you don’t have to sit in the same room with someone you’re fighting with.
How to recover from a high-conflict divorce
Researchers say most people need a year or two to recover from a divorce. You may need even longer.
If you don't share children or assets with your partner, break off contact. You're not required to keep in touch and allow fights to resurface. Cut ties and move forward with your life.
Take care of your physical health by eating right, drinking less, and exercising more. Soothe mental distress with yoga, meditation, and plenty of sleep.
Most importantly, look for a new center for your life. Adopt a pet, pick up a hobby, join a book club, or volunteer with seniors. Focus on the future, and you'll begin to feel better over time.
Investigating the Efficacy of MoMeT, a New Mediation Model for High-Conflict Separating Parents. (January 2010). The American Journal of Family Therapy.
Marital Conflict Behaviors and Implications for Divorce Over 16 Years. (September 2013). Journal of Marriage and Family.
Conflict in Marriage Does Not Need to Be Destructive. (December 2016). Institute for Family Studies.
Sources of Marital Conflict in Five Cultures. (January 2015). Evolutionary Psychology.
How to Heal From a Divorce. (April 2021). Psychology Today.