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.
“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.