I find it amusing how people throw around the term “high conflict divorce.” It seems much like an oxymoron considering you wouldn’t be getting a divorce if there wasn’t high conflict.
The Courts however view high conflict divorces differently than that. The law in North Carolina defines a high conflict divorce as being more than just a run-of-the-mill divorce. N.C.G.S § 50-90 defines a high conflict divorce as a custody case involving minor children where the parties demonstrate an ongoing pattern of any of the following: excessive litigation, anger and distrust, verbal abuse, physical aggression or threats of physical aggression, difficulty communicating about and cooperating in the care of the minor children.
I can understand a divorce being “high-conflict” during the initial separation phase when wounds are fresh and emotions are on edge, but what is it that makes the conflict continue even as time goes by and water goes under the bridge?
Once the divorce is final, the parties should be able to stop focusing on the relationship that they once had and focus all of their attentions on the children. I understand that is easier said than done. There is often one party who works very hard to keep up the fight. In that case, the divorce will remain high conflict because one or both parties are addicted to the conflict. It has been a part of life for so long that they cannot release that control and move on with their lives.
In my opinion, the predictability of it all is very pathetic. I have quite a few friends who are unfortunate enough to be divorce attorneys and they say that they can tell you exactly how someone will respond and when. It’s easy because when people are ruled by their emotions, they make bad decisions and are easy to read. As soon as things start to calm down, these conflict addicts will bring up a new issue to ignite to engage the other parent in more drama. It’s like they have to keep high conflict and drama going so they don’t have to focus on their own unhappiness and bitterness. They have an absurd control problem that becomes a vicious cycle.
If you have found yourself in a “high conflict divorce” with an ex-spouse who berates you when given the chance or fights you on everything from finances to extracurricular activities to phone contact, just remember that your ex is most likely one of these conflict addicts who needs conflict with you to avoid having to take a hard look at his/her own life. The constant control he/she desires is only to keep what they feel is left of the control they had in the marital relationship. They will claim to be over the relationship, but they are ultimately causing conflict in an effort to cling to what they once had.
The truly sad part of this need for conflict is that the children are the only ones who are affected. How can a parent truly be involved with their children if he/she is more preoccupied with fighting every move their ex-spouse makes? For example, if they have an ex-spouse who offers to help with carpool for a child to participate in an after school activity that the child wants to do. Rather than allow the ex to help with carpool, the high conflict parent chooses to try to do it alone and the child suffers when he/she cannot get to practices or is consistently late. Does that situation hurt the ex-spouse? No, it damages the child involved.
Clearly our society is overwhelmingly addicted to conflict. That addiction is clear when you see how widely successful reality television has become. We see all of this conflict on television, but how often do these same shows present any good tools for dealing with conflict?
The best way to deal with a conflict addict ex-spouse is to not bite. When he/she tries to bait you into an argument or tries to punish you by keeping your kids from you or refuses to participate in activities if you are involved, just stay calm and do not give him/her the conflict that they desire. If you find yourself in this situation, then you must CHOOSE to allow it to pass. It is indeed a choice and you are nurturing that conflict if you allow yourself to respond. And by nurturing that conflict you are giving power to someone who is obviously still consumed with the marital relationship.
If you are dealing with a conflict addict ex-spouse then you should do the following:
– Limit your time dwelling on any issues with the ex-spouse. Set up a separate email address to correspond with your ex and vow to check the email only once a day. By setting this guideline for yourself, you are choosing to NOT ALLOW your ex to be a constant in your day. If it is an emergency, then he/she can call you or text you.
– Limit the amount of time you will discuss the “drama” with your current partner. Some people have said it works best for them to say that you will discuss the drama 30 minutes following the checking of the email for the day. Once that 30 minute window is over, CLOSE THE WINDOW. Do NOT allow him/her to take over any more of your day.
– Choose “Sacred Zones” where you will not discuss the ex or the drama that surrounds him/her. For example, make your bedroom an ex-free zone.
– Focus on your kids. Your conflict addict ex will do consistent damage to your children as they witness his/her scoffs and hard breaths when your name is discussed. You must show your children in your daily interaction with them that you are not the person that your ex perceives you to be. Children are smarter than people think and even if the children have a fear of upsetting your ex-spouse, the kids will know in their heart what kind of person you really are. By your encouragement in the activities that are of interest to them, they will see that you do not have some control freak agenda that they must adhere to just to receive love from you. Unconditional love is what they will remember when they too become a parent.
– Do NOT be bullied!!! The dramatic ex is hoping that he/she can beat you down to the point that you decide it’s not worth the fight. So when the bullying starts (as it does often in emails and voicemails and texts), choose to shut it off. Do not respond and do not allow it to affect your day. Take it for what it is – a sad attempt of desperation to keep control over you.
– Most importantly, keep up the good fight. If there is a Court Order in place, then make sure you do everything you can to follow the Order – even if your ex doesn’t. Document everything that you may need in the future also. A conflict addict may drag you back in Court if you are steadily ignoring his/her attempts to fight, so it’s important to have an arsenal of information if that time comes. If your ex is constantly working on adrenalin and emotions, then he/she will build the case against themselves on their own.
With all that being said, divorce doesn’t HAVE to be high conflict. If you work on moving on with your own life and focus on giving your children the stability and confidence they need during this difficult time, then you won’t have time or the desire to constantly fight with your ex over piddly little items. But if you are not blessed to have low conflict, then stay strong and stay calm.
If you are reading this and realizing that YOU are the one who is causing your divorce to be high conflict, then I beg you to focus on the kids. Put the time you are spending trying to stir up trouble into being there to listen to your kids so that you can support them in the activities and hobbies about which they are passionate. Let things slide and try to move on.
Embarrassingly enough I know about this topic firsthand because admittedly I am writing this as a former conflict addict. I struggled when my ex moved on and I had not. I lashed out. I made life more difficult. I can see that now, because hindsight is 20/20. At the time I just thought I was “protecting my children.” Thankfully my conflict addiction was never extreme and my children did not suffer. My conflict was behind the scenes with their father, so they were not a part of it. I can promise you that your relationship with your ex and his/her current spouse, your relationship with your children and the overall happiness that you feel in your own life will ALL IMPROVE if you just change your focus…. and let go of the drama.
Keep the peace… for your kids.