3 Ways a Therapist Can Make Matters Worse During a High-Conflict Divorce

By: Sonia Brill, LCSW
Last Update: February 02, 2017

Therapy can offer a life-altering experience. Compassionate and competent counselors are able to provide a safe environment to facilitate personal growth and authentic experience. Individuals who have felt stuck or otherwise stymied are finally able express their pent-up feelings. This form of self-liberation can be freeing—self-discovery often translates to successful careers and healthy relationships.

However, advocating self-expression during a high-conflict divorce can have catastrophic consequences; instead, therapists should promote self-preservation. In almost every high-conflict divorce case, one or both parties have a personality disorder. Even if therapists and attorneys recognize the issues, managing them can be a laborious process.

Although most professionals are familiar with personality disorders, the truth is that even a competent therapist can be fooled by the calm and charismatic demeanor of a well-liked, upstanding professional in the community. In contrast, the reasonable individual who is falling apart may seem like a crazy person, anxious, and out of sorts. It follows that the therapist may prescribe problem-solving, conflict management, or collaboration as a course of treatment—but this is mistake.

3 Ways to Make Matters Worse During a High-Conflict Divorce

1. Collaboration with high-conflict personalities will lead to disaster

Collaboration equals enabling. It feeds into their agenda of engagement. The high-conflict personality has no intention of moving on; their unconscious motive is to keep the relationship going one way or another. They are likely to view your self-discoveries as points of weakness, instead of authentic vulnerability, so they can be used against you. High-conflict personalities are not able to naturally grieve the loss of their marriage; instead they are driven to sniff out areas where blame can be inserted.

“If you were not so rash or otherwise upset all the time, we could have worked things out. The kids would have a family....” Manipulative tactics are a hallmark of the high-conflict personality and are used to provoke re-engagement which commands your attention. Instead, don’t bite. Keep your feelings and thoughts to yourself.

2. High-conflict personalities don’t solve problems; they create them

Any attempt to work with them on problem-solving efforts is set up for failure. High-conflict divorce is driven by individuals who are unable to grasp their issues. They are perpetual victims who are looking for someone else to blame. Their conflict-laden selves seek an external source to dump (or project) their problems upon. It’s much easier for them to say, “You are always angry at me for one reason or another. That’s what makes it so hard to co-parent with you,” instead of stating, “I can see you are irritated with me for refusing to give up my parenting time 15 minutes earlier so you could get across town and miss the 5:00 p.m. traffic.” 

By nature, therapists are trained to solve problems; in fact, solution-focused therapy aims to find techniques to do so. But in this case, no amount of solution-focused therapy can make a difference. The high-conflict personality is geared toward blame and defensiveness; they don’t know other ways of relating to conflict. The non-personality-disordered spouse needs to find a support group to discuss their experiences and learn how to handle tirades of unaccountability, while also working to preserve their self-dignity.

3. Conflict management during a high-conflict divorce is like sawing your arm off

It’s brutal and painful to try to resolve conflict with a relentless ex-spouse. Their goal is to be ahead, to win, to be the good guy. In doing so, the other person, namely you, must be the bad guy or the loser. Conflict management by nature requires you to find mutual needs, empathize, and compromise. These are foreign concepts to a personality-disordered ex. In fact, like a predator waiting for its prey, conflict management offers an opportunity to pounce in their game of divorce. The best way to combat conflict or manage it is by keeping factual records of your interactions. Do not engage in blaming or shaming messages. If you must engage with your ex for a co-parenting issue, do so in writing. Keep it brief, factual, and on point to achieve an outcome for the children.

Save your cooperative efforts for someone who will appreciate your emotional growth. Not only is it unsafe to go down this route, well-meaning collaboration efforts will backfire in the long run. High-conflict situations by nature require stiff boundaries and decisive, strategic planning. Preserve yourself and take measures to protect your authentic expansion from exploitation. 

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