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What is a High Conflict Divorce? (and how is different than a regular one?)

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is probably the most common question I get about what I do. The term "high conflict" can be a bit misleading because on the surface it might indicate that all involved parties are participating in generating the conflict. Typically these are cases that are unable to be resolved through mediation. The most common points of contention are custody and financial issues (usually in the form of child or spousal support). The unspoken piece (as far as the Family Court system is concerned) is that typically one of the parties demonstrates a variety of characteristics and behaviors typical of disorders like narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD). These disorders are rarely recognized or diagnosed in people that have the characteristics of the disorders, making it difficult to present in court as a reason to limit custody, visitation, etc. If you're interested in learning more about these disorders, there's an excellent Med Circle interview on YouTube where Dr. Ramani Durvasula explains the difference between the two. You can watch that here: Narcissism vs Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD vs NPD) - YouTube

Typically, the clients that I work with are in the process, or beginning the process of divorcing partners who demonstrate a variety of abusive behaviors common to the personality disorders mentioned above. Often these behaviors have been witnessed by and/or directed at the children as well. (Going forward, I will reference the parties as the "healthy parent" and the "unhealthy parent"). Also typical in these cases, once the healthy parent has made the decision to end the marriage, the unhealthy parent will launch a smear campaign, where "winning" and making the healthy parent pay is the ultimate goal.

It is not uncommon to see unhealthy parents that are only minimally involved in the daily care of their children suddenly fighting for full custody. This isn't about the children--it's about control and hurting the healthy parent. When the parties (or the unhealthy parent) have the financial resources, they will often use the court system to further perpetrate abuse--filing appeals, custody modifications, and other frivolous filings, causing the healthy parent to spend thousands in legal and court costs--not to mention therapists, evaluators, mediators, etc.

The challenge then in front of the court is that they have two people that are presenting two very different sets of facts or arguments about the way things should be settled--and the court has NO idea who the healthy vs. unhealthy parent is. If you know anyone with NPD or BPD, you know that one of the characteristics of the disorders is that they constantly wear a mask, presenting themselves one way publicly and entirely differently behind closed doors. Their public mask comes on and they seem so believable and so sincere in their pleadings before the court. It's their stage and they thrive there.

Add to that the fact that the healthy parent is likely operating in a CPTSD response, attempting to protect their children and do what's best for them, only to come across in court as emotionally unstable, or with accusations that the court simply can't reconcile with the charade in front of them pretending to be the victim and parent of the year.

That was the long answer. The shorter answer: a high conflict divorce generally involves abuse (emotional, physical, financial, etc.), where a healthy parent is attempting to leave the marriage and protect the children from further abuse.

For a "regular" divorce, a coach might help you organize your financials, figure out what you need from the equity in your house, etc. As a certified high conflict divorce coach, my role is more about figuring out what kind of unhealthy person you are dealing with, what are their motivations, and how can you strategically manage to present evidence to the court that shows the court patterns of behavior, letting them come to their own conclusions about who is healthy and who is creating conflict.

Truth is, I don't love the term "high conflict", because of the implication that conflict always involves more than one person, but I also don't know what else to call it. "Narcissistic Abuse Divorce Coach" just doesn't have the same ring to it.

And for anyone that's new to discovering what narcissistic abuse is, here's a great video that explains a little about what it's like to be in a relationship with a narcissist. Victims often don't recognize that they've been in an abusive situation until they are out of it and have some space to see situations from a different, healthier perspective.

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