I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: divorce sucks. Even if it’s just a run-of-the-mill, no-frills divorce. They suck – they just do. Nobody gets married with the eventual plan to divorce, but here we are: some 50% of marriages end in divorce. It’s just the way of things.
Having said that, however, some divorces suck more than others. And if you’re divorcing someone who is “high conflict” (which is really an umbrella term for people who have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it, which usually happens over and over again in many different situations with many different people), your divorce is going to be in the “sucks more” category. High-conflict divorces cost more, take up more time in the court system, can go on and on for months or years, and are generally very, very bad if there are children involved. Unfortunately, the court system isn’t always well equipped to handle cases where there are personality disorders, emotional abuse, and people who have no problem lying and gaslighting everyone involved.
That’s why a big part of the work I do involves supporting people who are in the midst of such divorces – they find they need an extra level of help and preparation, both emotional and practical, that they can’t always get just working with an attorney. Because if you are divorcing someone who lies frequently and doesn’t know how to “play fair”, your game plan is going to look very different than a “regular” divorce game plan.
One of the first things I tell my clients before they even file is to start documenting everything imaginable – from financial documents to patterns of behavior. That is particularly important if they are divorcing a high-conflict person (for example, a narcissist), or someone who is generally abusive because the act of announcing intentions to file can ignite feelings of intense anger/betrayal/feelings of abandonment that can run the gamut from simply being irrational to being physically violent. It’s critically important to keep things organized and detailed – ideally before they even file.
The fact is that very often a high-conflict personality/blamer will start draining assets, hiding information, and creating a series of “emotional facts” that fit a storyline of abandonment/mistreatment/abuse that can support a largely fictional story that casts them in the role of victim and rush to their attorney or the court with a sad story and negative stereotyping that, once iterated, can be hard to roll back. So written documentation and fact-based evidence (as opposed to “emotional facts”) can be vital when trying to counter these fictional storylines.
If I have the opportunity to talk to clients before they file or announce they’re leaving, I encourage them to scan or otherwise document as much of the family’s finances as possible (tax forms, pay stubs, credit card statements, bank statements, etc.
Things to document/photocopy/take pictures of:
- Passports, green cards, driver's licenses, welfare IDs, work permits, immigration papers
- Rental agreement/lease or house deed
- Car title, registration, insurance info
- Marriage certificate
- Birth certificates
- Social security cards
- Proof of address
- Credit cards and checkbooks
- Copies of deeds, leases, insurance policies
- Utility bills
- Proof of income for both parties
- Copies of bank and credit card statements
- Tax returns
- Any police or medical records
The other type of documentation that I encourage, is keeping track of behavior patterns and written communication. Therefore, I will usually encourage clients to communicate with their spouse only in writing and try to stay away from talking in person or on the phone. Apps like Talking Parents or Our Family Wizard are admissible in court and can be real game changers in this department. Parties can’t change dates or wording or pretend they didn’t say something or read something.
Related to this, I also encourage your clients to start documenting fact-based evidence in these 3 areas:
- False statements – specific info about each of the blamer’s allegations that are false, exaggerated, or misrepresentative
- Patterns of abuse – make note of patterns of behavior
- The truth about you – collect info that shows your client's true behavior and consistent honesty
This kind of evidence can be useful/supportive when used in conjunction with (or in contrast to) prior statements, in depositions or declarations, declarations by therapists or other professionals, documents, and so forth. This also allows you and your attorney to start painting a picture of patterns of behavior that are in direct contrast to the “high conflict” storyline.
Bear in mind to record both facts and feelings – for example, if he punches the wall and you are afraid he might hurt you or your kids, absolutely keep track of that. If her behavior upsets the kids and they get freaked out, document it.
Here is a list of incidents you should document for your divorce:
- Threats against you
- Anger about the divorce
- Vitriol or hate mail
- Stalking behavior
- Not following court orders about visitation
- Digital abuse (hacking phones or computers or online profiles)
- False allegations with no proof
- Withholding child support
- Financial abuse
- Constant litigation
- Disparaging comments
- Not picking up or dropping off kids within 15 minutes of the specified time
- Setting up appointments and standing you up
It can be a challenge to keep everything organized, so a daily calendar-style journal may be helpful. Keeping a binder for everything works for some people – can keep court docs, etc there. Talk to your divorce coach, attorney, and any other divorce professional on your team about documentation – they can help you.
And remember that there are calmer days ahead. If you are in the middle of a divorce with a high-conflict person, it is going to be rough – but it won’t always be this way. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family and professionals who can listen to you, love you, believe you, and support you. It takes a village, as they say. Know that you are doing the right thing, as challenging as it is. You may feel confused discouraged and scared – that’s normal. But you will get through it.
If you need support right now, I encourage you to book some time with me – I’ll help you identify some practical ways to move through things that you can implement today!