Divorce can be traumatic when there are feelings of shock and betrayal. These feelings could be the result of abuse, affairs, or a sudden end to the marriage. If you feel unsafe in your marriage, you will also feel unsafe in your divorce. If you have children, access with the other parent can be incredibly stressful. You might also have experienced abuse in your childhood that is being triggered by conflict or the divorce process. Conflict can also trigger past trauma that might have occurred at any point in your life. Those suffering from fear of abandonment or post-traumatic stress disorder can struggle with reacting and not responding in divorce and court.
Divorce can become more traumatic when it is high conflict or ends up in court. A high-conflict divorce consists of excessive paperwork filing, accusations, an inability to communicate, and an inability to take personal responsibility. High-conflict divorces are comprised of at least one high-conflict person. A high conflict person might struggle to be flexible, act impulsively, and project feelings of inadequacy onto the other person.
Sometimes, abusers can abuse the other person through the court system. This sort of abuse is called litigation abuse. The abuser might make false accusations or try to humiliate the other person. Coercive control tactics through the court system can also look like one party trying to bankrupt the other or restrict access with the children. Sometimes, the person who is abusing through the court system does not want to let go of the other person. The high-conflict person might delay the divorce process so that they can stay married.
Other cases might involve revenge. Revenge might be the consequence of one person feeling like they were betrayed, rejected, or wronged. Affairs can humiliate the person cheated on, leading them to seek retribution.
Other cases might involve one person desperately trying to escape domestic violence. Domestic violence can be physical, emotional, or verbal abuse. Some of these domestic violence cases will end up with the abuser trying to control the victim through the court process.
If you are intimidated, scared, or on high alert around your ex, consider reaching out for help. Here are some pointers to help you through the challenges of a high-conflict divorce.
- Retain a family attorney. A family attorney can help protect you. They can also do their best to minimize abuse through the court system. A family attorney would also understand your rights if you have been a victim of domestic violence.
- Understand what motivates the high-conflict person. Watch for patterns of the person you are divorcing. Motivators could be a desire for control, power, sex, or money. Other factors could be a fear of rejection or inadequacy. When you understand what motivates the other person, you can understand how to minimize harm and conflict.
- Use Bill Eddy’s BIFF model to communicate. BIFF stands for Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm. Keeping communication brief protects you from giving too much information that could eventually be used against you. Informative refers to providing information and not opinions or judgments. The information should only apply to what is necessary for the task. Using a friendly tone helps the other person not feel rejected. Feelings of rejection can often lead to more conflict. And finally, it is important to set firm boundaries. Speaking firmly conveys to the other party that you will not tolerate disrespect or abuse.
- Seek help from a mental health professional. If you are struggling to maintain focus, sleep, eat, or remain hopeful, a mental health professional can help. Mental health professionals can also help you communicate and stay safe from other people. A mental health professional can also teach tools to help with anxiety, depression, stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Recognize where this other person still has power over you. If you think about your ex often, they still have control over your psyche. This power could be because they criticized you, abandoned or betrayed you. Notice where you feel these emotions in your body, and be curious how you can release these feelings. Staying connected to sensations in your body can help you to stop the looping in your mind.
- You matter, and you count. Often, parents in high-conflict divorces feel guilty because their children are also suffering. They might feel shame that they are not good enough parents. Work, court, and domestic chores can be exhausting. When you notice your energy being depleted, moods dropping, or feelings of agitation, it is time to take a time out. Make time for yourself so that you can continue to show up for your children in a nurturing way.
- Stay out of Court. The family court system is often overwhelmed with cases. For this reason, it can be challenging for the judges to allocate enough time to understand your case thoroughly. The court can be expensive and emotionally draining. Mediation or collaborative law can be preferable to the courtroom. Sometimes, court can only be avoided if you or your children are safe. Mediation and collaborative law are for those who can negotiate, collaborate, and take responsibility for their actions. No one wins in divorce. The best you can do is minimize the losses. Let go of whatever you can; let go of whatever is tying you to this other person.