Healing from High-Conflict Divorce: One Therapist's Advice

Healing from High-Conflict Divorce: One Therapist's Advice
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Nobody gets married and has children with the intention of ending up in family court.

Few things are as traumatic and anxiety-provoking as not seeing your kids on a regular basis, and having your life dictated by a court order. Compounding matters is the stigma and shame surrounding divorce.

As a psychotherapist specializing in high-conflict divorce and co-parenting, I can attest to the healing powers of therapy. While everyone is different, and no definitive guide or timeline exists to overcome traumatic events, I have witnessed positive outcomes when clients consistently focus on three main areas.

If "high-conflict" describes your situation, there is hope for recovery and for establishing meaningful relationships going forward. Change comes quicker when you honestly and earnestly work on not repeating or reacting to the past—especially when parallel parenting is part of the future.

What is a high-conflict personality?

While common terms include “toxic,” “personality disorder,” and “narcissistic,” the general definition is someone who engages in behaviors that reinforce conflict, rather than reduce or resolve conflict.

Typically, four behavioral characteristics are associated with high-conflict personalities:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Extreme behaviors
  • Blaming others

3 Lessons to Support Recovery from High-Conflict Divorce:

“The three things I cannot change are the past, the truth, and you.” ― Anne Lamott

1. Leave the past behind you. This lessons comprises three parts, all of which center around viewing your situation differently. The goal is to accept what happened and to disengage from future conflict.

—Let go of your ideas of how things should have turned out. No matter how toxic or contentious, it’s important to grieve the demise of the broken union. Allow yourself the time and the space to say goodbye to the lost hopes, dreams and future you envisioned with this person. This process is vastly different from obsessing about how your ex failed in his/her vows to love you unconditionally. Rumination is getting stuck in the past, while grieving enables you to process your feelings of loss and sadness, and to find meaning in the experience.

—Focus on mindfulness tools to bring you to the present moment when you find yourself stewing in anger, or fearing the uncertainty of life after divorce. Besides learning to pay attention to the present, living in the here-and-now helps you practice healthy coping skills to deal with stress. For some people, deep-breathing works wonders, while others prefer creative outlets such as painting or drawing to repair self-worth and help calm an anxious mind.

—Learn from your mistakes. Nobody deserves to be emotionally or physically abused, however, a high-conflict relationship happens between two people. This is not about self-loathing, or berating yourself for not seeing the warning signs, but reframing the experience. A vital question is, “What is the lesson I’m supposed to learn here?”

“We repeat what we don’t repair.” —Christine Langley-Obaugh

2. Work through your relationship issues. Although the ink has dried on your divorce decree, your problems do not suddenly disappear. As bad as the third-party involvement was, the solo aftermath of divorce can make your life unbearable. I advocate psychotherapy with a clinician qualified to treat high-conflict divorce. Understanding what drew you to this person in the first place will help you avoid the same dynamic. A therapist will help you identify firm boundaries around acceptable behavior, as well as recognize the signs of emotional abuse and manipulation. A Google search of counselors in your area will not necessarily yield the same results as putting in the work to find a psychotherapist who understands the intricacies of the family court system and how it works (or does not work). People who learn to redefine healthy relationship characteristics tend to heal, trust again, and experience fulfilling romantic relationships.

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.” —Thích Nhất Hạnh

3. Focus on your personal-care plan. After the circus-like atmosphere from endless and costly court proceedings, bickering attorneys, police reports, and allegations of child abuse, etc., your central nervous system needs to rejuvenate. Nourish your mind, body and spirit with practices that promote health and healing. You deserve it. Along those lines, focus on what you’re doing right. No matter how bad it is, you're always doing something well.

The humiliation and heartbreak of requiring government assistance to make decisions regarding your personal life and child-rearing is formidable. But this is just one chapter of your story. Above all, remember that you are so much more than a docket number or label.


Linda Esposito, LCSW offers "Co-Parenting Consultation" to help single parents establish parenting rules and peace of mind, despite a difficult ex. Click here for more information.

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