We don’t live in a perfect world, of course, and when the spouse you are divorcing has a high-conflict personality or is an outright narcissist, the world—and your divorce—can feel so far removed from perfect that there is only one word for it: toxic.
It’s an unfortunate truth that high-conflict spouses (both women and men) manipulate the emotionally-charged atmosphere of divorce, making the process go nuclear.
They do things like waging dragged-out court battles, picking unnecessary fights to pit your children against you, hiding marital assets, and almost always using some level of personal intimidation to try to get what they want.
Protecting yourself from the fallout of dealing with a high-conflict spouse requires smart legal thinking. You are not divorcing a “regular person” and the normal rules for having a “good divorce” just don’t apply.
Because high-conflict narcissists feel entitled to do anything to win, you must learn what to expect and develop legal strategies to protect yourself and your children.
Are you locked in a battle with a combative ex? Try these five ways to detox your divorce — and safeguard your children and future.
Get Everything in Writing: If phone calls or in-person conversations with your ex end up in shouting matches, limit communication to written forms only: emails, texts, or messages sent between your attorneys.
Written communication in a high-conflict divorce is important for so many reasons. It serves as a record and can be presented in court if needed.
The process of writing is reflective; this can help milder high-conflict types rethink their words, thus lowering conflict. Some divorcing parents even have it explicitly stated in their custody agreements that communication between co-parents must be written except in case of emergency.
As you ease into written communication, stick with short, neutral messages (e.g., “Confirming that I will be at library at 4 pm today for custody pick up.”). If you receive an inflammatory text or email in response, don’t take the bait! This may be an attempt to get you to say something you regret.
Another area where “getting it in writing” is important applies to all temporary custody and support orders, including alimony, that may be put in place before the finalization of your divorce.
Some couples on friendly terms may have casual agreements concerning custody or child support before final orders are agreed upon. However, when dealing with a volatile personality, verbal agreements can seriously backfire and lead to, “I never agreed to that!” kinds of accusations. Your attorney can help you establish written orders or you can file with the courts.
Gather financial paperwork as soon as possible: As a means of control, a high-conflict spouse may be unwilling to hand over financial paperwork needed for calculating alimony, child support and asset division.
This includes pay stubs and tax returns, bank statements and credit card bills, stock portfolio and retirement account information, and more. In some cases, a combative ex may decide to hide assets as a means of revenge.
To head off this kind of behavior, as early as possible in the divorce process (even before you file), collect as much financial paperwork as possible on your own.
Run a credit report to help identify financial accounts open in both your names. If you file your taxes jointly, you can request a copy of your tax return from the IRS. This information may establish a fuller financial picture or clue you in about possible hidden assets.
Leave the Kids Out of It: A high-conflict spouse may be bent on using children as a weapon in your divorce. Avoid this kind of warfare by having custody exchanges in public places and/or having a support person with you on these occasions.
If your spouse tries to lure you into an argument in front of the children, immediately end the conversation. Family or individual therapy may be very helpful for you and your children during this time.
Also, keep a journal detailing your day-to-day life as a parent. If your spouse falsely accuses you of being an abusive parent, this journal may become a valuable piece of evidence for disproving these types of allegations. Learn more about dealing with a high-conflict co-parent.
Don’t Rule Out Mediation: Your high-conflict ex may be pushing for litigation, but a court battle may not be a foregone conclusion. In some cases, divorce mediation, an often less costly alternative for settling a divorce with the help of a neutral third party mediator, can work out just fine if you are able to find a mediator with experience implementing a structured process.
A mediator experienced in high-conflict divorce will know how to help both of you stick to an agenda, will encourage attorney participation, and will caucus separately with each of you as needed—reducing the emphasis on face-to-face interaction.
This approach should be discussed with your attorney. Depending on the circumstances, litigation may be your best option for achieving a fair settlement.
Your high-conflict spouse may be counting on you to crumble in the face of tension. Keep your attorney informed about any problems you encounter and keep meticulous records.
Cleaning up a toxic mess can take time and a lot of effort. But your future, your kids’ future, and your peace of mind right now are worth it. If it can help to keep things in perspective, remember this: even Love Canal, the infamous toxic landfill, is now a lush green field!
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