Recognising (the dynamics of) high conflict divorce

I recently found a fascinating article by Dr Kathy J. Marshack about high-conflict divorce. Although she primarily talks about high conflict divorce with a narcissist, I think her ideas are broadly applicable to other high-conflict personality types.

For me, what was interesting wasn’t so much the pointers on recognising a high-conflict divorce as such (I think most of us know when it’s happening to us!) but the insight it offers into the contribution the lower-conflict spouse makes to the conflict dynamic by playing “nice” and aspiring desperately to co-parent “properly” – even when their ex-spouse is simply not equipped to do so.

In effect, these lower-conflict Care Bear types fuel the fire in their own way by insisting on playing by an inappropriately win-win philosophy, and that’s something we seldom recognise.

Drawing attention to this dynamic is not about blaming the victim; instead, it’s about reminding us of the futility of continuing to remain attached to ineffective strategies even when they’re clearly not working.

If madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, maybe spouses who avoid getting or enforcing court orders and try again and again to reach consensus decisions with high-conflict exes are perpetrating their own version of crazy without even knowing it.

(That being said, I’m not for a moment suggesting that egalitarian ex-spouses attempt to emulate high-conflict tactics… Face it, as well as it being a negative and damaging approach, you’re simply not as good at anger, manipulation and confrontation as a naturally high conflict person!)

It seems to me that one of the major problems is when the egalitarian ex-spouse feels responsible for the rugged shape of the high-conflict co-parenting landscape. They feel like the level of conflict and lack of cooperation reflects badly on them, making them one of those parents who seem unable to “put the kids first”.

Lacking innate understanding of how high-conflict people work, they are sure that by continuing to set good examples of compromise and negotiation and applying the Golden Rule, their ex-spouse will eventually “see the light”, recognise the benefit to the kids and reform their ways. They try valiantly to be the perfect co-parent, perhaps trying to finally “earn” the approval and acknowledgement of their efforts that were never forthcoming during their marriage.

Or they are held hostage by fear of the kids being recruited and alienated by the other parent and become so ginger about not exacerbating the craziness or putting the kids in the middle that they end up a puppet to the whims and agendas of the high conflict parent.

There’s no easy answer, but the way forward is likely to require egalitarian types to have a radical rethink of how they deal with their high conflict ex-spouses, and insist strongly and firmly on appropriate boundaries and structure regarding communication, decision-making and interaction with the ex.

Instituting low-contact communication and adopting a parallel parenting instead of co-parenting model based on detailed parenting orders may offer other ways to mitigate the impact of your very own high-conflict ex-spouse.

Good luck.

From Recognising High Conflict Divorce:

“While controlling people are narcissistic and do not understand you, the other ingredient for a high conflict divorce is the narcissist’s counterpart, a person who works for equality in relationships. This type of person is often very nurturing and self-effacing, and has a strong sense of justice. Thus while the controlling person works toward a win-lose solution to problems, the nurturing or egalitarian person works for a win-win solution. According to Patricia Evans, this places the win-win person at a disadvantage. While the egalitarian person keeps empathizing with the controlling person in an effort to create a win-win solution, the controlling person views this behavior as weak and an opportunity to conquer.

Essentially the controlling person creates a power struggle with the unwitting egalitarian. This keeps the egalitarian “on the hook,” so to speak because they can’t seem to realize that they will never create a win-win solution with a controlling person. Sadly it appears to be true that narcissists marry egalitarians and create high conflict divorces all too often.”

Visit Recognising High Conflict Divorce for the rest of the article.

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12 Comments

Filed under Communication, Divorce, Linkety-Link, Remarriage, Resources, Stepfamily Life, The Ex

12 responses to “Recognising (the dynamics of) high conflict divorce

  1. Kerryn

    Wow – ain’t that the truth! It’s like you’ve actually met my husband and his ex and seen them at work! :-)

  2. “Or they are held hostage by fear of the kids being recruited and alienated by the other parent and become so ginger about not exacerbating the craziness or putting the kids in the middle that they end up a puppet to the whims and agendas of the high conflict parent.”

    I think this part, as you’ve postulated, is what so many dads go through. And, interestingly, the dads I’ve met who’ve been given the space to wander through their own learning process after remarrying have come into a stronger position, clearer about setting boundaries, clearer about what they want with their children, less puppets, more comfortable.

    As a partner to that held-hostage dad, I’m finding my job is to make my peace with his style with it and live in respect of the man I married. I might not like how he handles things, I might read a zillion books that tell me he should do it another way, I might find 5 volumes of how to judge him . . . and at the end of the day it’s me getting into that bed with him, not the author of that book or blog. I need to make my peace with how he is, not who he should be.

    Just reflecting. Cuz the books make it sound so simple. Just do this. And that will happen. ….aaaah, in my step-life, it’s just not that simple.

    • Oh, I agree.

      It’s never, ever *that* simple. And in the end the choices are the parent’s choices, not the step/support person’s choices.

      While I don’t think that this knowledge will necessarily change a a low-conflict spouses actions, hopefully it will contribute to an enhanced understanding.

      Even if such a parent’s actions don’t change at all, for instance, knowing that there is nothing he or she can do to win the high-conflict parent over to his or her way of cooperative co-parenting may at least provide a break from striving, and a bit of peace.

      • Definitely worth understanding the high conflict personality. When I researched this it was so clear, like a light-bulb….oh, THIS is why this is so difficult. We’re not going to get anywhere by reasoning. Your final comments in your original post are really where the effort can best be spent, right? To be more parallel parents and not so hell-bent on co-parenting. Co-parenting seems to me another one of those idealized ideas that Ozzie and Harriet might have done if they got divorced.

        Now I have a hankering to go hug the hell out of my Care Bear…..what a life he’s led.

  3. Kelly

    Is one person’s “low-conflict spouse” another person’s (ie the ex’s) “passive aggressive spouse”?

  4. Lou

    Once again, one of the problems I have with labels such as the”high conflict parent”, “held hostage dad” and apparent “personality disorders”, which are almost always attributed to our partner’s ex, and rarely (if ever!) to ourselves, is that a group, in our case, “stepmums”, who are ostensibly here on the web promoting inclusiveness, end up promoting the opposite. That is, we actually promote separatism.
    But separatism, as I think Kelly pointed out, only increases divisions, sometimes to the point of no return eg Parental Alienation Syndrome and similar rot.
    And if you’re looking for bookish evidence for this, the ugly consequences of an “us and them” mentality have been shown again and again. In artificial arenas like the internet, evidence demonstrates that even arbitrary lines of separation can result in serious, aggressive and very embittered conflict.
    Some studies have even had to be disbanded because of artificially created divisions that created risks to children eg Muzafer Sherif 1966 and the Lord of the Flies type situation. In his famous Robbers Cave Experiments he showed that the single thing that reduced conflict best (far better than communication or contact between the divisive groups) was a superordinate goal, a goal so large that it required more than one group to achieve it. This is akin to raising children, I believe.

    When I look at terms like Parental Alienation Syndrome, High Conflict Parent/Divorce and Held Hostage Dad, they remind me of terms of war, and that is a very perturbing thing for all of us to reflect on.

  5. Kim

    Lou, the separatism and labels are the biggest reason I got off the chat rooms for stepmoms. I was really worried that the more people used those labels for each other and the more they thought of that other person in those terms, the more their brain would tell them that’s the way it IS and it’s never really any one way.

    I wonder about the superordinate goal of raising children is a motivator for adults to behave respectfully and with integrity toward one another. One might think that would be enough to motivate all parents to behave well. But that’s not what I see, sadly, so very sadly. As a stepmother, what I can do is not play the game that way and keep a peaceful heart and use all the compassion I can to keep an image of a positive future for that child.

    I keep waiting for there to be a very public process for divorce, just like there is for marriage that involves a lot of ritual and grief processing and public displays of resolution and endings. I don’t think we’re going to move forward into less conflict as a culture with the private one-to-one sessions a person might elect to have with a counselor or psychologist. The problem seems so big to me as to be an epidemic. The almost-condoned non-verbal and verbal violence within some stepfamilies is really not an acceptable environment for anyone to live in.

    I’m glad Stepmum wrote this piece, just for this discussion. I’m with you about the need to reduce conflict, and the first place I’m doing that is to not direct anger outward at my husband’s former spouse and not direct irritation and frustration at my husband. And it’s clear to me that every stepmother needs support to find this type of path, it doesn’t come naturally. It’s a process and a learning and a letting go.

    • Kelly

      Kim, that’s a lovely comment. As someone who continues to be distressed by the vastly different interpretation of events, wilful misunderstanding, and general venom emanating from 2 people whom I otherwise greatly admire, it is a sentiment I wholeheartedly endorse.
      It is interesting that the issue of labelling is one thing on which you’ll find unanimous agreement in the literature on child behaviour. The consensus is that labelling children will ultimately result in the child (and parents) believing the label and acting accordingly. So rather than saying “Georgina, you’re such a brat”, we should aim for something like “Georgina, the way you yell and scream when you don’t get your own way is making things really hard for the rest of the family”. ie describe the behaviour and the impact it has, but disassociate the negative behaviour from the child herself. I don’t see why we should manage adults any differently.
      SMOTY, there is an interesting evolution in your blogs from describing events and behaviour, and your responses to them, to a focus on other people’s writings on more generalised aspects of the step experience, and in particular on various syndromes and labels. And yet (please forgive me if I’m wrong), I think I can sense ever more anger and bewilderment. I know that the syndromes etc have helped you develop a framework for understanding your situation, and the dynamics of divorce and stepfamilies in general. Do you think it has also helped with regards to your emotional responses? And has the understanding you’ve developed helped in your interactions with the Lovely Man’s ex? If not, what factors do you think might be at play?

  6. Lou

    Thanks for your quietly wise and personal response to my email Kim.
    I felt quite a sense of peace when reading your words, especially your beautiful commitment at the end. That is my wish for myself, too.
    The art of letting go and forgiving is one that I have not been good at, often harboring a grudge for way too long, whether it be towards my ex, his girlfriend, or just our situation. Fortunately, I feel general admiration and respect for my partner’s ex wife.
    Given human fallibility, (we are ALL capable of disappointing ourselves or others) the most important quality in all of this may simply be the ability to forgive. It implies true acceptance of another, without an accompanying sense of dissatisfaction. It encourages us to act kindly, and with compassion, and I think we feel safer and more loved through d0ing this. But as you said, it’s a learning process, a transformative one, I believe, and it’s not easy. At times, I have found the hardest thing I need to do.

    Thanks again to SMOTY for posting such an interesting and helpful blog, and also to the other women who have been involved in our discussions.

  7. Lucy

    I have read with interest all your comments and feel compelled to tell you of our experience and what I have come to realise is the fundamental difficulty of ANY Family Court proceedings with a High conflict spouse. Before I do, can I tell you I am a mother of 3, have a positive relationship with my ex husband with whom I co-parent harmoniously and I am also a solicitor. My Lovely partner is a dad of 3 and has a difficult, high conflict ex who has made – and will continue to make should we allow it – his Life living hell. This ex has a partner, a beautiful home and receives regular generous child support. They have been divorced for two years and separated for 4.

    My partner and i live interstate from the high conflict ex. My partner’s 14 year old son lives with us fulltime. The 2 younger children live with their mum and visited us every school holidays. My partner also spent time with them on regular trips interstate mid term. osmy partner spent time with them every holidays and on regular trips interstate during term. Sadly, they are now relocating to New Zealand. We initially opposed the application in the hope of negotiating favourable orders maximising our contact . However knowing what we do of the law on this subject, we knew relocation would be permitted. Our fear was that the children would vanish overseas and never be permitted contact. Ordinarily, one would expect a party who proposes relocation to make every effort to ensure regular phone contact, skype, regular trips back to Australia etc.d

    This woman does none of this. A year after our first request and 4 solicitors letters later, skype is still not installed, answering machines are disconnected and phone calls ignored and never returned. When children do speak on the phone, it is on “speaker’ with tv and the other party distracting them. False allegations of harrassment have been made, AVO’s threatened ( before my partner left the state), contact suspended at whim and perhaps most appalling of all, false reports of child abuse filed with DOCS.

    As a mum and an ex wife myself, I watched this saga with horror. The solicitor in me – who has worked in criminal justice for years – was outraged that such lies could be told without a skerrick of evidence and perjury blatantly committed in court affidavits.

    The outcome of this conflict which we sought to address reasonably and fairly for years without success, is that my partner has – this weekend gone – withdrawn completely from the conflict. We have come to understand that detailed court orders are useful when you are dealing with a person who respects the law. But if you are dealing with a high conflict spouse, orders are not worth the paper they are written on.

    This woman will agree to anything in order to take the children away and frustrate their contact with my partner. She will breach any order she dislikes. Because there is no independent Government body policing orders or seriously punishing those who repeatedly breach them, it will be my partners responsibility to send solicitor letters demanding complaince, to pay thousands in legal fees, to wait months for a hearing and attempt to have them enforced. Trying to get a High conflict Spouse to respect orders is like asking Hitler to please obey the Geneva Convention. It just isn’t going to happen.

    So I have watched with horror and then sad resignation as my partner grants permission for her to relocate and seeks NO orders other than his agreement to pay for 2 return trips home. His grief is terrible but it has not obscured his realistic appraisal of his predicament. Negotiation is useless. The high conflict spouse thrives on engagement. The reasonable requests and courtesies will be ignored but their existance almost excites. Our patient plodding reasonableness shows we care and can be hurt. We The only way of disempowering her, is to withdraw.

    So my partner deals with his grief and tells her to go. He asks for nothing so she can deny him nothing. In 5 years, his little girl will be old enough to decide if she would like to live with us or at least visit more. In 7 years, his youngest son can too.

    My lovely partner is a patient and pragmatic man. He reached the realisation that there would be no justice long before I did. The lawyer in me kept believing that the Courts would assist, that truth would prevail, that integrity and decency counted for something. What I have come to realise is that in high conflict divorce, they do not. When you are dealing with a person intent on revenge or inflicting pain, no Family Court order will protect you. My partner’s ex can do whatever she wants because there are two little children who quite properly love her. They will live with their mum and she will determine the nature of the relationship they have with their Dad.

    In many ways it is a relief to have finally reached this place. A tragedy, but a release too. No more expectations, broken promises ,constant letters trying to fix the wrongs. No more outrage and stress that such lies could be told and such precious children used. We have withdrawn from the battle. The act of withdrawal will confuse the high conflict spouse and then infuriate her. Her ability to relocate now will neither please or relieve her. Relocation was never really the goal. Conflict was.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your observations that the egalitarian spouse can unwittingly contribute to a power struggle. Withdrawal ends the battle but it comes at a terrible price. My partner lives daily with unspeakable grief, Most tragically however, two little children who love their daddy dearly will be denied regular visits, spontaneous phone calls and the proper relationship to which they are entitled.

    Being tough with a high conflict spouse isn’t about making demands and getting detailed orders they must observe. Being tough is in fact refusing to negotiate at all. Its about gathering one’s dignity and courage and no longer begging for crumbs. Its been a terrible journey learning this and I don’t think we’d have believed this until we’d experienced for ourselves the futility of expecting the other party to be decent or fair or to put the children first.

  8. zaner

    Parental alienation hurts children and adults. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. Here is another description of these terrible things: Divorce Related Malicious Mother Syndrome by Dr Dr. Ira Turkat also known as Divorce Related Malicious Parent Syndrome

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