20th Jan 2014

Six causes of a high conflict divorce

– and how to avoid them

Most divorces are difficult and have varying degrees of conflict. Over 80% of them, however, are resolved within a year of the divorce itself, either through reaching an agreement or by the couple being able to set aside their differences.  The remaining portion see high levels of conflict lasting between the couple for more than a year or two after they separate.

Judith Margerum, Ph.D identifies six reasons, together with her co-authors, why these long lasting high conflict divorces happen in her book Defusing the High Conflict Divorce.   Do you recognise any of these in yourself or your partner, and, if so, what should you do?

  1. Personality traits
  2. Poor coping methods
  3. Past experiences
  4. Emotions
  5. Communication skills
  6. Physical and mental health

Personality traits

Judith Margerum and her co-authors highlight four personality traits in particular, namely rigidity, a need to control events, defensiveness and reactivity.  Each of these traits will contribute to an escalation in the temperature and the frequency of arguments and hostilities.

Poor coping methods

Individuals in long term high conflict divorces tend to do one or more of the following, as a means of coping with the distress of the the divorce;

  • Over-react to situations and comments
  • Blame others or projecting blame
  • Attack the other person/parent
  • Get defensive
  • Make threats
  • Involve any children of the marriage

They go on to recognise that high conflict parents “have a tendency to repeat the same behaviours, even though they don’t work.”  Conflicted partners will lock into unchanging patterns of interaction even while they complain that things are not getting resolved.  They become blind to the fact that their own contribution to the situation may well be one part of the equation, often determined instead to blame the other person.

Past experiences

Each partner will have a different repertoire of past experiences from their own childhood, adolesence and adulthood.  How they experienced their own parent’s relationship – and perhaps separation – can profoundly impact how they conduct themselves and the decisions they make now in their own divorce.

If your experience of your own parents’ divorce, for example, was that your mother constantly criticised your father and prevented you from seeing him, then that experience can lead to a presumption that this is an appropriate stance to adopt – if you are the mother – and can also lead to a presumption for fathers that this is what mothers do.  Either assumption can, in turn, determine what position you will adopt on this issue. 

Memories of your own previous relationships might also be triggered by current events which, for the unguarded, can determine how they behave in the current separation.

If you are interested in reading more about the science of previous experience shaping current perceptions and reactions then read Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant Thinking Fast and Slow.

We should also be aware of previous or current traumatic events in either partner’s life including, for example, abusive relationships.


To suggest that emotions can lead to high conflict divorces seems to be stating the obvious.  The authors go on to clarify that it is not just emotions that creates long term high conflict but where the emotions prove to be hard to control.  This can be demonstrated by impulsive and sometimes explosive displays of emotional expression.

Communication skills

Most of us have no formal training in communication skills.  We learn how to communicate as we grow up and then adapt and refine our skills through experiences.  Gradually we get better at communicating in ways that are appropriate to the circumstances that we find ourselves in from time to time, usually through trial and error.

When we arrive at a divorce or separation situation, however, we often have no experience to draw upon – other than what we might have seen friends and relatives do or what we might have seen portrayed through the various media sources we access.

The authors of Defusing the High Conflict Divorce make the point that one or both partners might have highly developed communication skills in some other sphere and yet be close to dysfunctional within their own divorce situation.  For example, consider an eloquent public speaker, lawyer or a Consultant Surgeon with exeptional compassion and empathy skills and `bedside’ manner;  She or he can be renowned for their effective communication within their profession and people can be shocked to see a massive gap between that level of communication and how they communicate in their own circumstances. 

If the individual was able to shock themselves into recognising this gap then this might be a first step on the road to moderating their behaviours and employing more effective communication skills.  Unfortunately though disputants will often feel justified in acting in ways that perpetuate the high conflict by pointing out aspects of the other person’s behaviour which requires them to respond in the way they do.

Physical and mental health

Defusing the High Conflict Divorce helpfully explores how physical poor health can make conflict worse in a divorce.  An example is given of a wife who is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Her husband decides to leave and the wife feels abandoned.  Her diagnosis had resulted in her believing that her husband should be obliged to care for her after the good times they had had together.  Her own disappointment and fear of a compromised future can also invite a resigned attitude of  `I’ve got nothing to live for any more so I might as well make his life hell as well.’

Mental health issues are also a consideration.  We have written elsewhere about the need to look out for signs of depression during separation and that remains true.  There are other mental health issues that can have an impact on divorce and drive chronic high-conflict divorce.  Consider how a parent who suffers from paranoia, delusions, hallucinations might react within divorce and separation.  How about an individual who has struggled all their life with autism or aspergers?  Certain personality disorders, the book suggests, can even result in individuals taking some form of enjoyment from the distress they cause `-even in the lives of their children.’  Alternatively, egocentricity can blind them to the impact their actions have on others.

What can you do to avoid the high-conflict divorce?

Being aware of the risk of high conflict divorce and how they arise is essential if you are to avoid falling into this trap.  That will require you to not only focus on the law and processes of divorce but also the ways that your actions, and those of your partner, impact on one another and shape the divorce itself.  It is not just enough to have an excellent lawyer – after all many of the most notoriously expensive and drawn out divorce legal battles had excellent lawyers involved – but to have one who is informed and alert to the non-legal elements of your separation as well.

An ideal would be to have lawyers and family consultants working together for you.

Here at Family Law in Partnership we have always been aware of the additional cost and damage that high levels of conflict can wreak on families going through divorce and separation.  For that reason we have shaped our Covent Garden divorce law practice to incorporate family consultants within our offices.  The benefit for you is that you can be sure that you and/or your lawyer will be able to access the full range of support services, insight and expertise that you need in order to get through this process as well, and as quickly as possible. 

We offer you this full support through your separation so you can ensure that the six causes of high conflict divorce, namely personality traits, ineffective coping methods, past experiences, hard to control emotions, health and communication skills will not hijack your separation and condemn your family to disputes lasting many years.  As a result you, your children and your family can move through this difficult time in better shape and with less cost and time being taken up.

If you have any questions about conflict in your divorce or separation, or on behalf of a friend or relative, then please contact us on hello@flip.co.uk or telephone us on 020 7420 5000.  We look forward to being able to help.