Making the decision to get a divorce is neither easy nor pleasant. Avoiding a high-conflict divorce is a priority for many partners who are separating, especially when there are children involved. In the long-term, minimising post-separation conflict can help make the divorce less painful and easier to endure.
Divorce is unavoidably hard. The process is costly and time consuming, and it involves other people becoming familiar with your private business. You might find yourself anxious, tired, angry, or frustrated. Suddenly, thinking about who gets to keep which household items is unbearably painful. Too often, couples also experience a seemingly endless battery of arguments and disagreements during this time.
Shock, numbness and despair are just some of the feelings people experience during divorce. These strong emotions frequently lead to blaming your partner for being the cause of your suffering. During this time, people often lash out in an attempt to alleviate the hurt – but this just creates more pain for all involved.
It’s absolutely crucial to avoid the common divorce behaviours and beliefs discussed below. Rather than adding to the heartache of an already difficult situation, avoiding high conflict divorce pitfalls will ensure that you move through the experience feeling calm and in control.
Even if you want to prove to your partner that you’re right and they’re wrong, fighting and arguing doesn’t create any winners. Leaving a relationship is difficult enough as it is: any extra conflict is just creating more hurt. When you are tired and can’t think straight, wondering if the pain will ever end, it’s common to feel that everything is your partner’s fault. You might approach the impending divorce as the greatest battle of your life, one that you have to win. But the war is already over. Instead, step back and give the situation some space. Adopting a stance of calm communication where possible can help you to clear your head and focus on what truly matters.
It’s vitally important to look after yourself at this time. Eat well, rest when you can, and don’t be afraid to talk to close friends about what you’re feeling. If you have children, taking care of them means not involving them in the conflict with your partner. High conflict divorce and exposure to parental fighting can have devastating mental health outcomes for children later in life. Separating your marital conflict from your parenting responsibilities is essential to your children’s wellbeing, and the health of their relationships with you and their other parent in future.
Whenever you feel an argument arising, keep in mind that you and your former partner are already on different paths, walking in different directions. The war has finished and you are both on your way to your new lives. Is there any gain in going back to prove something to the person who is already on their way out?
High conflict divorce can create devastating, overwhelming emotional pain. Often we don’t understand how the other person can appear to be so serene, and not as upset as we are about the separation. Some people question themselves:
“Did they always want to divorce?”
“Is there someone else?”
“Did they ever love me?”
You may even feel like you’re hurting the most:
“They just moved out and don’t seem to care… they’re working and socialising like nothing has happened while I can’t even get out of bed.”
This can be hard to handle – you might feel like you can’t go on.
Relationship counselling can help you navigate the confusion and distress that divorce tends to stir up. If your ex isn’t willing to attend post-separation counselling with you, seeing a divorce specialist for individual support can provide the closure your former partner is unwilling or unable to give you. Cognitive-behavioural therapy can be especially helpful if you need to address intrusive recurring thoughts and process the heartbreak caused by your divorce.
Often divorcing partners may stall on divorce negotiations, adamant that their partner is to blame for the relationship breakdown. In the midst of an already high-conflict situation, suddenly an apology becomes the focal point for each partner’s grievances. A common complaint is “They’re still denying it, they never apologised for ruining our marriage, and my life.” Yet in reality you may never hear the words: “I am sorry, I was wrong.”
By prolonging divorce and delaying the divorce settlement, both of you are hurting. Think about what it will cost you to pursue an apology from your partner. You might be tempted to spend all your energy on chasing an admission of guilt or responsibility from your partner – or trying to have them understand and admit how much they hurt you. Yet these behaviours and associated thought processes only serve to keep you stuck in the limbo of divorce pain indefinitely, instead of moving forward with your life.
When we get caught up in high-conflict divorce behaviour, we only increase the sadness, pain and rage, and our sense of helplessness. We become emotionally and physically exhausted in pursuit of things we may never achieve. We may never know that they’re suffering as much as we are; nor get them to apologise and admit that it is their fault; or simply to prove them wrong and to ‘win’ the divorce. And that’s okay. Even though the relationship is over, you still have a future ahead of you filled with the possibility of friends, family, healing and happiness. No feeling is ever final, and eventually the pain will recede.
How are you going with your divorce? If you find yourself feeling caught up in the feelings and behaviours discussed here, it’s important to pause and reflect. Don’t exhaust yourself focusing on goals that will not help you to heal. If you need some support processing this difficult time as painlessly as possible, counselling can help you move forward.
Divorce research resources:
Brown, J. (2014). High-conflict divorce: Antecedents and consequences. Behavioural Health, 1(1).
Krantzler, M. (2014). Creative divorce: A new opportunity for personal growth. Open Road Media.
Symoens, S., Colman, E., & Bracke, P. (2014). Divorce, conflict, and mental health: How the quality of intimate relationships is linked to post‐divorce well‐being. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44(3), 220-233.
Zemp, M., Bodenmann, G., & Cummings, E. M. (2016). The Significance of Interparental Conflict for Children. European Psychologist.
Zimmerman, J. (2016). Divorce: Using psychologists’ skills for transformation and conflict reduction. Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.