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How to Handle a High Conflict Divorce

Fri 29th Apr, 2022 Family Law

Divorce is an emotionally fraught process even under the best of circumstances. While most divorcing couples would like to think that they are mature and rational enough to avoid a bitter and protracted divorce, emotions often cloud their better judgment, and it is impossible to know how a person will actually behave once the divorce process is initiated. Divorces that are especially contentious are known as high conflict divorces and may require the assistance of a Stockton marital dissolution attorney. 

Risk Factors for High Conflict Divorce 

Human behavior is unpredictable. Even the most calm, cool, and collected person can become unusually combative in a contentious divorce. On the other hand, emotional and hot-tempered individuals may be able to work cooperatively with their spouse for the greater good, especially if there are children involved. However, there are a few red flags that can indicate that a couple is at risk of a high conflict divorce.  

Certain Personality Traits

One of the most common determinants for high conflict divorces comes down to the personalities of the individuals involved; some people simply are easier to work with than others. In some cases, an individual’s capacity for combativeness may be the result of a mental disorder, such as narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, or borderline personality disorder, among others. In other cases, an individual’s predisposition to conflict may have no clinical explanation, but rather be based on one or more high conflict personality traits.  These often include: 

  • Consistent blaming of others 
  • Manipulative or controlling tendencies 
  • All or nothing mentality 
  • Defensiveness
  • Perfectionism 
  • Difficulty communicating emotions
  • Competitiveness 
  • Low trust 

Spouses tend to understand each other’s personalities very well and can thus often anticipate personality-related conflicts before they occur. 

A History of Abuse 

It should come as no surprise that divorcing an individual with a history of domestic abuse, including both emotional and physical abuse, is a risk factor for a high conflict divorce. Individuals who engage in abuse generally use violence to gain control over situations, intimidate their victims, and reestablish dominance after a perceived slight. Being served with divorce papers can trigger any one of these emotional responses and increase the risk of a violent incident. If domestic abuse is likely to be an issue in your divorce, you should consider contacting a Stockton marital dissolution attorney who can advise you on the best path forward, as well as explain the various restraining orders that are available to you.  

Drug or Alcohol Addiction 

Divorcing an individual who has a history of drug or alcohol dependence comes with a unique set of challenges. While such individuals may not be abusive or even particularly prone to combativeness, their behavior can be erratic and they may engage in destructive behaviors while under the influence of drugs or alcohol that they otherwise would not. Divorce can also be extremely stressful, which can cause recovering drug or alcohol addicts to relapse. If you think drug or alcohol addiction may be an issue in your divorce, a Stockton marital dissolution attorney can help you develop a game plan. 

High Net Worth 

High net worth divorces tend to be more complex regardless of the personalities of the spouses simply due to the value of the assets to be divided. High net worth individuals typically own assets that are difficult to classify as separate or marital property, such as businesses, or that are difficult to value with precision, such as artwork. Individuals with much to lose in a divorce tend to fight to preserve what they believe is theirs, thereby increasing the risk of a high conflict divorce. A prenuptial agreement can limit some divorce-related conflicts, but cannot prevent them entirely. 

Do’s and Don’ts of High Conflict Divorce 

The best way to handle a high conflict divorce is to prepare yourself beforehand by keeping the following do’s and don’ts in mind. 


  • Set firm boundaries: High conflict personalities tend to cross boundaries because they know doing so is upsetting to the victim. If you feel that you are not being treated with respect, do not be afraid to end the conversion. Establish strict limits on what you will tolerate and what you will not tolerate. 
  • Be upfront with your needs and wants: There is no reason to tiptoe around certain issues just to avoid upsetting a high-conflict spouse; at the end of the day, your divorce agreement still needs to work for you. 
  • Document your spouse’s behavior: If it is possible (and safe) to document your spouse’s behavior, do so — it can be used as evidence in your divorce proceedings
  • Stick to court orders: Do not let a high conflict spouse or former spouse bully you into being flexible with court orders; saying that you need to stick to the court order is a strong response to a combative spouse while violating a court order can result in civil and criminal contempt


  • Respond in kind: It can be difficult to resist the urge to respond in kind to a high-conflict spouse, but you should nonetheless remain as professional as possible. Getting back at your spouse can make the situation worse and be used against you in divorce proceedings. 
  • Bring the children into it: Divorce is particularly hard on children; avoid making the situation worse by using them as messengers or as objects of guilt. 
  • Try to win battles on your own: It can be tempting to respond to combative communications from your spouse on your own to try to win the argument, but doing so could draw you further into the conflict. Instead, try to route all communications through your attorney. 
  • Vent on social media: Venting on social media can seem like a good way to air your frustrations, but you should generally avoid using social media during a divorce, as anything you post can be used against you

Get Help from a Stockton Marital Dissolution Attorney 

If you are considering a divorce but suspect that your spouse might make it a high-conflict divorce, please consider speaking to an attorney who can help you determine the best path forward. To get started, contact a Stockton marital dissolution attorney at McKinley, Conger, Jolley & Galarneau by using our online form or calling us at 209-477-8171.

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