High conflict divorces are the most damaging of all marital splits.

By Dr. Beth Erickson (Alabama)


To the casual observer, people who carry on the fight that likely was the downfall of their marriage into and beyond their divorce, makes no sense at all. After all, the explicit message that being divorced sends to both parties, their children, and the outside world is that the marital bond is broken irreparably. But still their divorce wars continue on.

What’s up with that lunacy?” observers wonder as they scratch their heads.

In this article, I will explore some reasons for the ongoing struggle that threatens to bankrupt the former couple emotionally and financially and make mincemeat of their children when one or the other or both seek revenge for the divorce and for all the marital woes.

It should be noted that both parents likely have different and often opposing agendas, to no one’s surprise. At the same time, the other spouse may continue the fight because s/he genuinely believes in advocating for the best interests of the children.

Or one or both simply may be out for revenge for the breakup of the marriage.

Manipulating the Legal System

The parent who instigates the conflict usually has more money and uses it to control his/her ex and their children. Their money buys them access to the Courts. And their constant cry of “Save my children from this awful person!” allows them to enlist the unsuspecting judge or parenting consultant to be a weapon to bludgeon their ex mercilessly.

It has been my experience that Family Courts encourage the use of parenting consultants, arbitrators, and mediators to divert conflict and to effect the best interests of the child, which is a nationwide standard. But even they are not immune from manipulation by the ex who has a vendetta and is afraid of being alone. So the children become pawns, as does the unsuspecting and unsophisticated judge.

The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

The subtext changes at different stages in the post-divorce process and as the children grow and develop. Yet, it stays the same in terms of the process of managing the former couple’s ongoing dispute. Initially, when the divorce threatens to become a high conflict divorce, this is a couple’s way to hang on to each other without having to learn how to constructively deal with each other in their children’s behalf. Clearly, the instigators can’t stand to be together, but they can’t stand to be apart, either. These tussles echo children’s terrible two’s, when they tantrum to get their way.

Often, one parent hangs on using control, intimidation, and anger, while the other becomes more and more powerless to effect a change. Which is the initiator’s none too subtle agenda.

If instigators are highly narcissistic, they are geniuses at enlisting unsophisticated helping professionals to be on their side, using their charm and apparent reasonableness. This leaves the other parent two choices: fight back, getting nowhere against the parent who has the vendetta and more money to hire a top gun attorney; or continue advocating for what they believe is in the best interests of the children. Truly, they are on the horns of a dilemma.

Enter a New Relationship

Gradually, the fight usually mutates. When the parent who is more reasonable (and appealing) becomes involved in another relationship, this is experienced as a deep narcissistic injury for the parent who refuses to move on. A new relationship is clear evidence that the ex has moved on. Although the parents obviously are legally divorced, it is predictable that this would trigger feelings of abandonment and emptiness in the less mentally healthy spouse. Rather than directly expressing sadness and loneliness, which is the appropriate and healthy response, in fact, they defend against these more vulnerable emotions. They keep them out of sight and out of mind by the alchemy of conflict. What even less healthy spouses sense is that they are losing their grip over the ex, so they go into overdrive with their ex.

Then, at an unconscious level, emotional wounds of longstanding loneliness and emptiness start to “bleed” profusely. Then the more vengeful ex becomes even more determined to maintain the fight, to possess his/her children, and to warn the potential stepparent against becoming involved in the children’s lives. This, of course, can jeopardize the new relationship, which is all part of the faux concerned parent’s agenda.

The longer this goes on, the more problematic it is for the children and for the more conciliatory spouse and his/her new partner. Soon the dispute becomes like tar baby, where the more the healthier spouse attempts to extricate him/herself from under the lion’s paw, the harder the narcissistic ex puts one stumbling block after another in the path of the healthier parent.

Independence vs. Dependence

The issue that occurs that is perhaps the most threatening to the controlling ex is his/her children beginning to assert age-appropriate independence. This is even more the case when the healthier ex supports the children’s burgeoning independence. After all, what a good parent is supposed to do is to work him/herself out of a job. But the instigating spouse doesn’t understand that, and makes little attempt to be a good parent. To the instigating spouse, supporting a child’s growing independence is threatening. After all, they might just grow up and develop a strong sense of autonomy, which would mean that the healthier ex would “win,” and the instigator would lose control and possibly his/her kids. Both of these are prospects that the instigator cannot control, and therefore, finds threatening.

For example, the healthier parent permits the oldest child to leave the house for a short time when s/he is not home if the child leaves a note saying where s/he is going. The healthier parent who is invested in helping the children develop a sense of autonomy and independence blesses this age-appropriate opportunity. However, the instigating parent complains bitterly, to no one’s surprise.

Because the exes can’t agree on anything, they are unable to reach a consensus about this. So the healthier parent, having no other choice, operates under the assumption that different rules can be applied at each house.


  • High conflict divorces are the most damaging of all marital splits.
  • Children see a very poor role model of a healthy and workable marriage, and in fact see the opposite.
  • The conflict between these couples typically intensifies when the healthier parent supports the children’s burgeoning autonomy and becomes involved in another serious relationship.
  • The issue for the instigating parent is control and fear of losing it.
  • Then the children’s needs are often overlooked in favor of the parent’s wishes, particularly those of the instigating parent.
  • It can be very difficult for the healthier parent to extricate him/herself, particularly if the manipulating spouse has enlisted lawyers, judges, and helping professionals to side with him/her.
  • The healthier parent’s best recourse to keep in focus the best interests of the child.
  • As much as possible – and no doubt it is easy to say, but hard to do – the healthier parent would be wise to not pick up the rope in the tug of war that the instigating spouse is orchestrating.

Dr. Beth Erickson is host of “Relationships 101” on www.webtalkradio.net; author of Marriage Isn’t for Sissies: 7 Simple Keys to Unlocking the Best Part of Your Life; Longing for Dad: Father Loss and Its Impact; and has been featured in Fortune, Reuters, USA Today, Better Homes and Gardens, Cosmopolitan, Forbes.com, Entrepreneur.com, Christian Science Monitor, The Miami Herald, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Huffington Post; ABC Twin Cities Live and NBC Chicago. Subscribe to Dr. Beth’s Daily Words of Wisdom at www.drbetherickson.com/daily_words_of_wisdom.html.

© Dr. Beth Erickson 2011