Michelle Dempsey on Divorcing a High-Conflict Spouse
When I connected with Michelle Dempsey-Multack on Instagram, I knew right away we had to spotlight her in a Hello Divorce Q&A session. A divorcee who has navigated the challenges of post-breakup life and the heartache of shared parenting, she walks the talk.
But more than that, Michelle is authentic, kind, powerful, engaging, and insightful. While her expertise as a certified divorce specialist, coach, and author is generally shared with women, her wisdom is universal, and I'm certain our entire community will value her perspective. OK, let's jump in!
On divorcing a nightmare ex
Erin: A lot of people consider you to be an expert when it comes to setting boundaries with a high-conflict ex. Let's start with the basics. How would you define high conflict?
Michelle: In my opinion, a high-conflict individual is someone who is more interested in conflict than resolution. They may project feelings onto others, misplace anger, and fixate on blaming others rather than taking responsibility for their own actions. For them, conversation serves as a path to arguing rather than a tool for understanding.
Erin: Do you think it's possible to have an amicable or mediated divorce with an ex who is high-conflict?
Michelle: Of course I do! It starts with setting boundaries, exercising a superhuman level of self-control, and ultimately, accepting that we cannot change the behavior of other people. Once you accept that fact, you can shift how you show up to anyone with a high-conflict personality and bring your boundary-setting tools to the table. Keep your goals and desired outcomes focused on what will be best for your child instead of "going for the jugular" or seeking revenge.
"... it all starts with setting boundaries, exercising a superhuman level of self-control, and ultimately, accepting that we cannot change the behavior of other people."
On setting boundaries with a high-conflict spouse
Erin: What are your best tips for setting boundaries with your ex without inciting an all-out war?
Michelle: High-conflict people do not like being told "no" or that they're wrong. For this reason, I always advise my clients to harness the power of silence – a boundary in itself. High-conflict exes are looking for exactly that – war – and by modeling peace in the form of silence, you're not only putting out their fire, you're also giving yourself peace of mind and protection and taking your power back at the same time. Silence is a powerful boundary. It just takes some self-control to know that any response you give to their attempts to engage in conflict will pull you into a web of toxicity.
Erin: You've said your divorce was grueling but fairly amicable overall. Can you share what you mean by that?
Michelle: Hindsight and experience always shift your view of things. When I was going through the divorce process, I couldn't imagine anything worse than what I was dealing with: the threats, the anger, the intimidation from opposing counsel. It gave me more anxiety than I had ever felt before. I was triggered at every turn, fearful of what would come next, and desperate for the whole divorce process to be over with. Looking back, though, and knowing what I know now from all of the work I've done in the divorce space, I realize that my divorce process was probably a level 5 when I felt it was at a 10. The truth is, my ex and I, despite our personal differences, both had the same interests in mind: what was best for our daughter. It was the process that was grueling, for sure, but my ex and I were more amicable than not.
On the divorce process
Erin: Was there anything in particular about the divorce legal process you didn't like or wish could be changed? Maybe something you wish you'd done differently?
Michelle: Oh, yes, definitely! I wish I would have understood that not every suggestion made by an attorney needed to be followed up. That not everything needed to be negotiated to death. That compromise is a much more powerful tool than "refusing to settle." Oh hell yes, I wish I knew this now, and I wish I had gone the collaborative divorce route instead.
On the challenges of co-parenting
Erin: You've spoken publicly about adjusting to co parenting life and the challenges associated with it. Do you have any tips for learning to walk through the world without having your kids full-time?
Michelle: There is nothing in the world that can prepare you for not being able to parent your children full-time. It's a wholly unnatural feeling, yes, but there are ways to turn this painful time into a productive one.
- First, accept that it'll hurt, and honor your feelings. This is painful stuff and a lifestyle you probably never expected to live. It's okay to cry! It'll hurt every time you say goodbye to your kids, for a while at least, and then you'll ease into your new normal, and the pain will subside.
- Next, I always encourage parents to use the time productively, dedicating themselves to something they truly love doing. For me, it was writing, working out, and literally just lying in bed binge-watching shows. I never had enough time for those things when I was still with my ex or on my days with my daughter, so I learned to make those things a habit. After dropping her off at her dad's, I'd commit to a workout as a means to release some stress and give myself an endorphin boost. If I was going to be sitting home alone on a Saturday night, I'd put on my comfiest sweats, blast some music, and write. If I had no other obligations, it was hours in bed with my remote. With consistency and time, I truly began to cherish this time alone. It gave me the escape and reset I needed and the opportunity to be my best, most present self when with my daughter.
- Last but not least, lean on your village. Whoever it is that you find comfort in spending time with, now is the time to reach out and say, "Hey, this time without my kids is really hard for me. Want to grab a cup of coffee or go to dinner? I could use the distraction." There is no shame in asking for help right now, and you shouldn't be scared to do so!
On making the decision to divorce
Erin: When did you decide divorce was the right choice for you? How did you come to that decision?
Michelle: When I had tried everything in my power and exhausted all options to make the marriage work. I advise all clients, friends, and random people in my DMs to walk away knowing you've tried. Give it a fighting shot. After that, if it still can't be salvageable, you know it's time to leave.
Erin: Do you have any recommendations for resources or support for people post-divorce?
Michelle: Yes: My Moms Moving On membership community. I've created a spot for women who need extra help and resources for their divorce, co-parenting, and single motherhood challenges. This is the place to be for anyone who wants the value of coaching without the high-ticket price. My membership community offers expert tips and resources from divorce industry experts of all kinds, a free monthly workshop led by me, perks and discounts for all of my favorite brands, workout and self-care inspiration, and a private Facebook community where the ladies get to know each other. Check it out here!