Contentious Divorce – A Field Guide

Contentious Divorce Help

Tips for dealing with a contentious divorce

Contentious divorce can take several months to years to finalize. That’s because it’s often riddled with accusations, disagreements, and overworked attorneys.

But what exactly makes a divorce contentious and why is it important to know about it? Let’s start with a basic definition. As we pointed out in an earlier blog post about the types of divorce, a contentious divorce happens when you and your soon to be ex-spouse, argue over such things as money or child custody and can’t come to an agreement. You both hire separate attorneys who will argue your case in front of a family judge.

There are a few easy to recognize signs of a contentious divorce that include:

  • High degree of conflict: completely different views on fundamental issues
  • Antagonistic behavior: name calling, accusations, attempts at making the other person look bad in court
  • Lack of communication: most communication is done by the attorneys to avoid further arguments between the parties

For these reasons, communication breaks down while frustration and anger grow. It leaves both people feeling stressed, angry and more likely to dig their heels in rather than come to a compromise.

Divorcing a Narcissist or Borderline Personality Disorder

The chances of having a contentious divorce are very likely if the other person is a narcissist or has a borderline personality disorder (BPD). Both of these personality disorders exhibit similar symptoms that contribute to conflict in divorce. These include:

  • Unhealthy approach to conflict: angry outbursts and constant blaming of the other person
  • Unable to deal with anger: both deal with anger in heated, irrational and emotional states
  • Unstable relationships: constantly being in and out of relationships with friends and family
  • Need for constant attention: Negative attention by way of argument and antagonistic behavior feels good

Here’s a great resource for more information on borderline personality disorder vs.narcissism.

As family therapist Karyl McBride stated in an interview with the New York Times, “if you’re dealing with a narcissistic personality disorder, you’re dealing with somebody who does not have the ability for empathy or to emotionally tune in to their partner or their children.”

Divorcing someone with BDP is just as difficult because they tend to mistrust the other person, and refuse to acknowledge that others are entitled to different points-of-view. Such was the case in my divorce. My ex had BPD and refused to acknowledge my point of view. She also got angry anytime the judge, attorney, or parent coordinator sided with me on any issue.

Tips on Coping with a Contentious Divorce

No matter how patient you are, a divorce will test you. A contentious divorce will certainly push you to your limits. So, here are a few tips that I learned during my divorce that I think can help you get through your divorce and also help you on our journey as a co-parent.

1. Limit Contact

You’re likely to get all kinds of emails that piss you off. But, don’t take the argument bait. You have to keep your calm and respond in a manner that keeps you from getting into an argument. Also, try to limit transitions (times when you need to pick up the kids from the other parent). Instead, ask to have pick-up be at a neutral location like school – preferably where you will not be approached by the other parent.

2. Don’t badmouth the other parent on social media

I wrote an entire blog post on how important it is to keep from blasting the other person on Facebook and other social media site since it can be used against you in family court. You should expect that your ex will take any badmouthing you do in writing to court to show that you an awful person and bad example to your kids.

3. Keep Meticulous Records

While it may be tempting to think that your ex will move on and find another outlet. Chances are they will forever see you as an enemy that deserves to be mistreated. Don’t put it past them to be vindictive and take you to court over trivial matters. Therefore, save all text and email messages you get from your ex, especially if they are antagonistic towards you.

4. Respond Rationally

As I mentioned, don’t take the argument bait. Instead, when you need to respond, stick to the facts and keep your responses short. This may mean that you need to think and try out a few responses before hitting send. One tip here is to write your response and just leave it in your draft folder overnight. Check it again a day later once some of the anger or frustration it caused has ceased.

5. Don’t admit mistakes

I read about this one here and couldn’t agree more. While holding yourself accountable and knowing when to apologize is admirable by any standard in all other rational situations, however, “a high-conflict ex will interpret your apology as proof that you are the mentally ill, incompetent, stupid person she says you are. Even admissions of minor mistakes can be twisted into admissions of heinous acts and spur a high-conflict ex to take you to court, or simply broadcast to everyone with whom they come in contact that you are a terrible person.”

As a divorced dad who is dealing with an ex with BPD, I know firsthand how difficult a contentious divorce can be as well as how to deal with them post-divorce. In my next blog post, I will write about the ways I’ve learned to deal with a high-conflict person as a parent in hopes that it can help you too.