A few weeks ago, I was talking with Bill Eddy about mediating high-conflict divorce cases.

Whether we are focusing on solely financial issues or also child custody mediation, there are some important management tools to remember.

During our conversation, we found that as divorce-attorneys-turned-mediators, we noticed the same thing: that the cases we litigated in court and the ones we mediated have the same core issues, but how they’re handled in or out of court will have long term impact on outcome.

The root cause of conflict in these cases – especially the high conflict ones – is rarely the child custody or the alimony or whatever issue it is that was in dispute; rather, it’s the personality of one or both of the spouses.

While diagnosing personality disorders must be left to a professional, and while some people may exhibit some traits but do not necessarily have the disorder, realizing that your spouse falls under this category means there needs to be a change in approach to be successful, especially where child custody mediation is at issues.

Here are five ways you can deal with a high-conflict partner:


1. Take a step back and reassess your situation

People with personality disorders generally have trouble processing emotions and relating to situations as easily as other people do. As such, they are not always aware of their role in contributing to the conflict, and have an all-or-nothing mindset which makes negotiation quite difficult.

When you recognize these behaviors in your soon-to-be ex, the first thing to do is to assess how you’re approaching your divorce. This means managing your expectations of your partner… i.e., accepting that they are not going to change, and that your focus now needs to shift to managing your relationship instead of trying to get your partner to act the way you expect them to.

2. Let them feel heard

This may feel counterintuitive especially when your partner is being difficult, but under the façade of hostility is someone who is frustrated and vulnerable. Just like you.

Because people with personality disorders have trouble processing emotions, it is no surprise that they can’t express them well either. This inner frustration usually translates into a constant state of anger, and cause them to lash out. But instead of feeding into this vicious cycle of hostility, you can end it by showing them some empathy and attention.

Acknowledging their emotions and empathizing with them on a deeper level can help ease some of the frustration that builds up by not being able to express their negative feelings. A simple “I understand how upset you are. I am, too,” can make your partner feel heard. And when people feel that they are being listened to, they are more likely to listen to others as well.

two people looking in different directions

3. Focus on solutions, not feelings

In negotiations with a high-conflict person, especially during child custody mediation, trying to get to the bottom of their feelings to figure out their interests usually yields unproductive results. They tend to lash out when the focus is on the negative feelings they can’t process, and this can get you both stuck on an issue.

Instead, you can move the conversation forward by focusing on the technical aspects of your divorce. Distract them from their confusing emotions by having them focus on problem-solving; while they might have trouble navigating their feelings, they can be capable of addressing the logistics of your divorce and making decisions that engage their analytical left brain.

4. Learn to walk away… or be a little deaf

One of the most stressful parts of a high-conflict divorce is the tendency of communications to get hostile. While it may sometimes be cathartic to exchange insults with a difficult partner, it ultimately stalls the case and damages your family further.

So when the discussions begin to get heated, you may choose to walk away from it until cooler heads prevail. Or, you can nix the negativity by only addressing the actual issue at hand and not retaliating when they lash out.

For example, if your partner is misunderstanding something, give them the correct information in a concise, friendly, and firm manner. Ask them politely to consider the information, and then let them get back to you once they have thought it over. Ignoring their provocations shows them that they cannot get a rise out of you by being abusive, and that you are can’t be manipulated by this kind of behavior.

5. Draw clear boundaries

Being understanding and patient with a high-conflict partner does not mean you need to endure abusive behavior. Part of managing your relationship means you have to let them know that not everything will fly, or that you are the only one who is expected to adjust. Setting boundaries with a high-conflict partner is a way to not only keep the divorce moving forward; it is also a way to protect yourself from unnecessary emotional turmoil.

Just as in negotiations, you can set your limits by focusing their attention on choices. Engage their logical thinking by giving them courses of action that they can take with corresponding consequences. You could say, “If you do this, then I can keep working with you. If you do that, then I can’t continue.”

This gives them a concrete understanding of what or how much of them you are willing to deal with, and it gives you some measure of control over how they treat you.

Divorcing someone with a high-conflict personality makes the challenges of separation more complicated than most. But high-conflict does not always equal litigation; your divorce options are not limited to going to court. In fact, mediation, collaborative divorce, or a combination of both are great options that can help you and your soon-to-be-ex navigate your separation in a civilized, nontoxic, and even positive manner.

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DISCLAIMER: The commentary, advice, and opinions from Gabrielle Hartley are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice or mental health services. You should contact an attorney and/or mental health professional in your state to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem. 


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