Going your own way – top tips for limiting emotional and financial costs when divorcing
I have helped many clients whose cases I would describe as ‘high conflict’. Each client’s circumstances are unique but there are some common features of high conflict cases. Some of these are illustrated by the following fictional case of John and Judy.
John and Judy have been married for 12 years and they have two children. John is charismatic and charming, particularly to new acquaintances, and Judy is smart and likeable.
Over the years, John’s criticism of Judy - from how she dresses for work to how she cares for the children - has become more frequent and more hurtful. Judy’s confidence has been slowly eroded. If she gets upset, John’s responses are unpredictable: sometimes he says he was just joking; sometimes he denies he said what Judy claims; and on other occasions he might ignore her entirely or shout at her. Over time, Judy has stopped saying anything because she does not know if she really has cause to complain and is worried about how John will respond.
John and Judy both work but he controls the family finances. He makes all the financial decisions with little or no consultation with Judy.
Judy has spent more time caring for the children than John. She has become increasingly convinced that the children are experiencing the same negative consequences of John’s behaviour that she is. Judy begins to believe that it may be better for the children not to see John. He feels that Judy is trying to drive a wedge between him and the children.
The relationship dynamics in John and Judy’s case may not seem extreme: they are experiencing issues which might appear in many marriages and relationships. However, family lawyers used to dealing with high conflict personalities on divorce will quickly recognise the potential for this to be a high conflict case.
Judy may feel that it has taken her a long time to understand the subtle reality of John’s behaviour and the impact it has on her. She may be determined to make sure the children don’t have to deal with the same thing. Judy could come to believe that it is in the children’s best interests for their contact with John to be very limited.
John on the other hand may see himself as a good father who has always been around. He could feel strongly that he should have 50:50 care of his children after separation. John may not be able to accept what he sees as Judy’s baseless allegations about his behaviour. He is likely to be shocked, hurt and extremely angry if he fears that Judy could be alienating the children from him.
The relationship dynamics that exist between John and Judy, and their inability to empathise with each other, give this the potential to be a high conflict case.
Identifying the potential for a case to be high conflict at an early stage is important. It can have a big impact on how a case might unfold.
Continuing with the case of John and Judy, common issues in high conflict cases which could arise here include:
Clients worried that their divorce might be high conflict should seek to find a family lawyer who specialises in these types of cases. Divorce is emotionally difficult for most people. The additional turmoil and stresses involved in a high conflict divorce mean that it helps to have a lawyer who can recognise what you are facing and come up with a strategy which takes that into account. For example:
High conflict divorce cases are often hard fought and it is important that clients are supported by someone who knows what they are facing and how to handle it so that progress can be made. As well as the right legal advice, those who experience a high conflict divorce can often also benefit from the support of therapists and divorce consultants who specialise in these types of issues.
If you have any questions about the issues raised in this blog, please contact a member of our family and divorce team.
We understand and have developed approaches to support clients wishing to separate from a spouse after a relationship with heightened conflict, controlling and coercive behaviour and/or involving personality disorders (e.g. someone on the narcissistic spectrum). We can also draw on the support of experts in our criminal litigation team, who have experience in dealing with issues which often need to be considered in tandem with family law issues, ranging from the criminal offence of controlling and coercive behaviour to domestic abuse and harassment.
Cady Pearce is a Senior Associate in the family and divorce team. She works on complex financial cases and difficult cases involving children. Cady specialises in high conflict matters and cases involving personality disorders. Cady is empathetic, robust and works hard to develop strategies that focus on what is most important to her clients.
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