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What Is A “High Conflict Divorce,” Anyway?

For many of us, we’re a year or two into what seems like an over-the-top, crazy-town separation before we learn it has a name: High Conflict (HC) Divorce.

Knowledge is power and knowing the signs of a HC Divorce at the outset can help you make different choices, save your sanity and result in better outcomes for yourself and your children.

I spoke with Kathleen Wells, lead partner at Wells Family Law, about what typically identifies a file as HC and the best way for you as a client to manage your way through it.

How To Recognize A High Conflict Personality

As a family lawyer who’s represented everyone from legal aid clients through to multi-millionaires, Kathleen can attest there are no economic, cultural or gender barriers to entry when it comes to high conflict: it can be – and is – anyone.

“There’s definitely a high conflict personality type that you can recognize right away,” says Kathleen:

  • always blaming someone else; almost a preoccupation with blaming others
  • highly controlling and manipulative, consciously and unconsciously
  • unable to accept responsibility
  • little capacity for introspection
  • all-or-nothing mentality
  • destabilizes by yelling and screaming a lot; explosive (in this way shifts focus from managing issues at hand to managing the emotional outburst)
  • always threatening their ex spouse and/or their lawyer to get what they want, for example, “If you don’t do this, I’ll report you to the law society”

Because HC personalities are fundamentally adversarial, they can be obsessively single-minded and ruthless in their efforts to “win.” Attacks and challenges can feel relentless and the experience is mentally exhausting for clients and counsel alike. If you can afford it, Kathleen always suggests seeing a personal coach or therapist for support; if you can find one who specializes in HC behaviour, so much the better. A good counsellor can keep you emotionally balanced, help you make sense of your HC ex and provide soul-saving strategies to manage your relationship with them through divorce and beyond.

What A HC Divorce File Looks Like

Beyond personality type, there are a few things that typically identify a HC file early on:

  • A high volume of (often antagonizing) text and email communications (20-50/day or more) from the HC spouse to their ex
  • A restraining or emergency protection order may be in place or has been in the past
  • If abuse is present – physical, emotional/psychological or financial – it’s likely to be a HC file
  • Sometimes your ex’s lawyer of choice is a harbinger: It’s not uncommon for HC personalities to hire counsel known to be combative themselves
  • Multiple lawyers (three or more) who’ve worked the file already
  • HC files are generally open for years, sometimes up to 10 or more if young children are involved, alternating between periods of calm and chaos

If Your Ex Is High Conflict

All divorce is hard, but the HC experience can defy imagination. As Kathleen can attest, rarely is anything resolved efficiently, so it’s wise to be prepared for that. “High conflict personalities don’t have the ability to self reflect to see how they might contribute to a problem, so it can be hard to make progress.”

If you’ve got a HC ex, the number one thing Kathleen recommends to assure the best personal and legal outcomes in your divorce is “get very knowledgeable, very quickly on the high conflict personality. Get as educated as you can in this area. You’ll gain amazing perspective and insight that will be invaluable through your divorce and going forward.” The High Conflict Institute is a particularly excellent resource in this regard, available to everyone.

Kathleen encourages alternative dispute resolution when possible. As a rule, mediation is preferable to going to trial for both emotional and financial reasons; the process not only costs a lot less than court, but typically the whole divorce agreement can get done much more quickly. “Most people are better served in private, working with a mediator or arbitrator. Court affidavits are part of the public record, which isn’t great for most people.”

While the HC personality isn’t usually amenable to mediation at the outset, having their personal lives potentially made public can often be the tipping point in convincing them to participate, or at least try it. That said, HC personalities will work to destabilize and control your emotions through a variety of means including gaslighting, threats and humiliation – the HC ex rarely does the right thing easily. Proactively having a clear, strategic legal path for the discovery, disclosure and child custody processes ahead of time is a smart hedge.


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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