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The Problem With the Label “High Conflict Divorce”


It’s generally true in conflict that “it takes two to tango.” In the world of divorce, the fundamental problem with being labelled “high conflict” is how rarely both parties are dancing together. The persistent attitude within the legal system that both sides are equally responsible for the conflict is not just discouraging, it actually impedes justice and resolution.

High Conflict Personality, Much?

The High Conflict Institute defines a high conflict personality (HCP) as someone who “increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it… (they) approach problem-solving by engaging in blaming others; all or nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors, which include spreading rumors or lies, keeping obsessive contact and an intense desire to control or dominate.” Frequently HCP’s have personality disorders, or traits of these disorders, specifically “narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, paranoid, and histrionic personality disorders or traits.” 

Of course, it’s possible two high conflict people can marry and divorce – but this exceptional circumstance doesn’t reflect the experience of the majority.

Why the Label is Good

To instantly understand a relationship trajectory and set of problems, especially as they relate to co-parenting issues, “high conflict” is a useful label. In a typical divorce, conflict subsides as the process reaches a close. In a high conflict situation, tension and acrimony have usually raged on…and on and on… well past the time when jets should have cooled.

Before even meeting, the title “high conflict” helps a lawyer, judge, mediator or therapist know what they’re in for and set strategy, especially regarding all things related to children. This includes but is not limited to, a long and hostile communication history; police involvement; mediation has failed, maybe multiple times and boundary issues where one party doesn’t follow the court order, constantly messes with the visitation schedule or sends messages through the children. 

Why the Label is Bad

Here’s the problem: The high conflict frame alongside this prevailing notion that “it takes two” encourages lawyers, etc. to consider both sides equally responsible for the conflict: “Here are two people who can’t set aside their hurt feelings. We just need them to cooperate, get over themselves and put their kids first.”

On the surface of things, a need for cooperation is obvious and clearly in the best interests of children. But when the fundamental nature of a high conflict personality is uncooperative, mediators, lawyers and judges can insist all they want – it just will not happen. It can’t. Forcing a HCP parent to “collaborate” with their ex is like trying to make a snowball out of sugar: it just won’t stick. 

  …And Then There’s Domestic Violence

It’s often the case in divorce with a HCP that domestic violence is present. Simply naming a family situation “high conflict” can diminish this awkward fact, particularly when the abuse appears in non-physical, coercive control kinds of ways. What typically precedes this kind of breakup is a long period of abuse and coercive control that includes incessant verbal abuse and threats, stalking/cyber-stalking, withholding and controlling financial resources and a general sense of intrusion that’s psychologically destabilizing. 

For me, just when I thought I’d done the hardest thing possible in leaving my relationship with preschoolers in tow, I was thrust into a legal system that insisted I was half of the problem. 

This is not withstanding the financial and litigation abuse that’s rampant, where the often more financially powerful HCP puts everyone on a seeming hamster wheel of court applications because they can. The adversarial nature of the legal system doesn’t particularly support healthy ongoing relationships and communication between co-parents. 

To be clear, domestic violence is not a “shared” problem and it sure as hell isn’t a failure to amiably co-parent. 

Problems Believing

In my case, two things made it difficult for mediators, lawyers and judges to believe my high conflict relationship was so one-sided: 1) My ex is “fancy.” He’s highly regarded, successful and wealthy; and 2) I am not an emotional basket-case. I got a discount for being emotionally functional.

The collective result was, “I don’t believe this impressive guy is capable of everything claimed;” and “She seems pretty together, so it can’t be that bad.”

But how bad does it have to be? In 6 years I’ve had 1 failed mediation, 3 lawyers, filed 2 police reports, have a separate police investigation a foot high, filed 2 restraining orders, submitted years of objectively incriminating, consistently harassing, text messages and emails in a PwrSwitch report and I’ve gone extravagantly into debt paying legal fees – and still I’ve been treated like I’m half of our high conflict co-parenting problem.

This is neither reasonable nor just.

Empathy and Justice

I had a police officer years ago say “I’m sorry honey, but it doesn’t matter what you do. This (the conflict) won’t end for you until he’s dead.”

So, that wasn’t awesome.

But at least the police get it; or that officer did. I now have a lawyer who also gets it. No longer being held to account for half of my high conflict trials, I have hope change is coming, though too slow for most of us already traumatized by a high conflict ex and caught in what feels like the family (in)justice system. 

What’s true is that with a HCP in the mix, conflict will ebb and flow, but it will never stop. What I wish the law better appreciated is that regardless of what a person does, a HCP ex will continue to dance all over your life on their own. It so happens that sometimes, a tango is a solo act.



Carrie Gour

After personally experiencing a high conflict separation and all that entailed, Carrie Gour co-founded the software company PwrSwitch. It's purpose is to support those dealing with a complicated divorce or co-parenting relationship by automating the manual, emotionally and physically exhausting process of documenting mobile communications for legal or therapeutic counsel. MORE >

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