There seems to be a misconception that all couples going through a divorce are involved in high conflict cases. In reality, however, the majority of separating couples are able to resolve their issues with little or no court intervention. With that said, there are some cases that despite the lawyers using their best efforts will not settle. The parties are unable to agree upon even the smallest of issues and court battles ensue. These cases are often referred to as high conflict cases. In this episode, host Jaime Davis discusses the topic of high conflict cases with Donna Moore, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Healthy Divorce Recovery Specialist.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime Davis: Welcome to Episode 2 of Season 2 of ‘A Year and a Day’. I’m your host, Jaime Davis. In Episode 1, I discussed the topic of what happens to the family business during a divorce with my law partner, Nicole Taylor. In this episode, I will be discussing issues related to high conflict cases with Donna Moore. Donna is a licensed clinical social worker and she is in private practice in Raleigh. Her practice is focused on all of the emotional aspects of divorce before, during and after Donna as a healthy divorce recovery specialist. And she works with individuals and families on co-parenting, counseling, divorce, coaching and blended family issues. Donna is also a parenting coordinator. Welcome, Donna.
Donna Moore: Thank you.
Jaime Davis: So today I thought it would be helpful to our listeners to talk about high conflict cases. There seems to be a misconception that all couples going through a divorce are involved in high conflict cases. But in my experience, the majority of folks dealing with the issues arising from their separation are able to resolve their issues with little or no court intervention. What that said, however, there are some cases that despite the lawyers using their best efforts, simply will not settle. The parties are unable to agree upon even the smallest of issues and court battles ensue. These cases are often referred to as high conflict cases. So, Donna, what exactly is a high conflict case?
Donna Moore: Well, a high conflict case generally consists of a lot of anger and a lot of distrust. What generally describes it as a high conflict is when they end up in court over and over and over again for excessive litigation and this may involve verbal abuse between the spouses, physical aggression or threats. There’s generally difficulty communicating and the majority of the ones I have seen are revolve around custody issues and it turns into a custody battle.
Jaime Davis: Are there any particular circumstances that make it more likely that a divorce case will become high conflict?
Donna Moore: When the parties involved are not able to see the need for negotiating and putting their differences aside in order to come to an agreement, they may feel like they are going to have their day in court. They perceive that it’s going to be fair and that they are right and once they are heard that everyone’s going to agree with them. And many times they assume it looks like it does on television.
Generally speaking, there may be personality, mental health issues, personality disorders, different cultural expectations. And then many times the children are used as pawns in order to move the battle forward into a courtroom.
Jaime Davis: Backing up to something you said just a moment ago. You mentioned cultural expectations. What do you mean by that?
Donna Moore: Some of the cultural expectations that I have seen are that mom is a stay at home mom and that she is going to continue that lifestyle, staying at home, even if the children are growing up and at school more often, that she is entitled to the the lifestyle that she was accustomed to and that she doesn’t have to go back to the world of work. Many times moms think that they will move out and have their own place and that the children will be with them all the time. That the culture now is moving more towards dads having more shared custody, more shared parenting, and that it’s no longer every other weekend and dinner on Wednesday nights on the off week.
Jaime Davis: So in your experience, one source of conflict between the parties can be that perhaps a particular person has heard from a friend of a friend of a friend who went through a divorce that, you know, “hey, you’re gonna get primary custody of your kids because you’ve been a stay at home parent and the other parent is only gonna get every other weekend.”.
Donna Moore: Correct. And that is not necessarily so. But if you enter into the negotiations with that expectation and you become rigid in your thinking around that and that’s your expectation, then that can lead to some issues that may prevent the person from having flexible thinking and then they end up in the courtroom.
Jaime Davis: That’s a really good point as lawyers. That’s one of our primary jobs, in my opinion, is to set realistic expectations for our client and to help them understand what is a realistic range of outcomes versus, you know, the pie in the sky. This is what I want because I want it.
Donna Moore: Mm hmm. Yes.
Jaime Davis: You also mentioned that mental health issues can play a role in making a case high conflict. Typically, what types of mental health issues are we talking about?
Donna Moore: There’s a cluster of personality character disorders and that would include borderline personality, narcissism, histrionic, dependent personality. And these are not illnesses, they’re more character disorders. And so, when folks, if one or both of the parties involved have the characteristics of having a personality disorder this puts them at high risk for high conflict divorce situation. It would require a lot of intervention from mental health folks, their attorneys, the court, sometimes, in order to get them to seek assistance and being able to be a reasonable parent. Many times parent coordinators will be appointed.
Jaime Davis: And what are some of the traits associated with, let’s say, borderline personality disorder that could impact a custody case, for example?
Donna Moore: An individual might feel as if they’re being abandoned, being abandoned by their spouse, by their children, by the system, themselves if they feel like it’s not going their way. They could feel like they’re losing control of the situation and they will grapple to get it back, even if it’s in an irrational style. Many times if they feel disrespected or misunderstood, they will lash out in, again, ways that you and I may not – may just kind of stand back and go, “oh, that is not getting you anywhere.”. But to them, it’s a defense mechanism to make them feel safe again. Also, if they feel they are not being heard and that they’re being ignored or discounted, they will make sure that they are getting attention. And this many times will end up in the courtroom in a high conflict situation.
Jaime Davis: In your experience, are there common characteristics associated with high conflict personalities?
Donna Moore: Yes. Rather than label people outside of the mental health field, it may be easier to just kind of put them together in a cluster and consider them high conflict folks. And some of the characteristics are the lifetime preoccupation of blaming other people for their woes and their troubles and avoiding taking responsibility. There is a real rigid all or nothing thinking, like, it’s all right or all wrong, or it’s all me. You’re either for me or you’re against me. Always seeking attention and sympathy. They may – they are looking for allies in the divorce process. They’re looking for family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors. You’ve got the depositions of the school nurse and anybody that will agree with them and back them up on their point of view. Speak in dramatic emotional extremes. It’s all or nothing type thinking and language. Language is real important. Focusing intently on other people’s past behaviors, keeping score to the smallest detail and always bringing it up and making it a point that they’re watching.
Punishing those guilty of hurting them. Making sure their life is miserable in ways that can be quite creative at times. Trying to get others to solve their problems. And and that’s where they come into the court system, utilizing the the judges, attorneys to get them to solve their problems for them. And rather than to be responsible and to work on negotiating and mediating their own their own issues. And many times they will lie if they think it is going to support their cause.
Jaime Davis: So in your experience, how can these, I guess, traits or characteristics of high conflict personalities impact the divorce process itself?
Donna Moore: It comes back, I think, to their expectations that in doing this, they’re going to get something for it. That there’s a reason. That the court will hold somebody else responsible for their behavior. That guilty or not guilty are usually the only choices, especially for the all or nothing thinking. And that’s going to be discovered in court.
Jaime Davis: And so I guess, too, that could be a real impediment to settlement, that if it’s all or nothing, there can be no middle ground, no gray area where, you know you and I might be able to agree on something.
Donna Moore: Right. It’s reworking over and over again that movie, The War of the Roses. Yes. That going down for the cause and the cause is their thinking and their way of looking at things. That the view is that courts are where our society imposes punishment and that they want to see punishment done, trying to get the court to solve their problems. And many times bringing new numerous advocates into the courtroom and doing it that way.
Jaime Davis: And when you say bringing numerous advocates into the courtroom, what do you mean by that?
Donna Moore: And when I was talking about a moment ago, with the aggressively seeking allies, people to back up their story, bringing in neighbors, people from their childhood to say that they’re a good person and they would never do this.
Jaime Davis: Really any witness that they could possibly find to support them?
Donna Moore: And if you’d like to find out more information about how conflict personalities in legal disputes in the courtroom, in divorce, even in the workplace, I would refer folks to Bill Eddy. He is a licensed clinical social worker who is also an attorney and is a mediator and is nationally well-known for his work in high conflict divorce situations.
Jaime Davis: If a person finds himself involved in a high conflict case, is there anything he can do to help mitigate the conflict?
Donna Moore: Yes, there there are a couple things. First, to try to focus on the behavior of the other person and not the person. To try to focus on their own behavior and not on themselves to try to externalize it a bit in order to not take this personal, because the attacks can be quite just wounding. And this is a difficult situation full of stress and tension already. Being very careful about their language to not use inflammatory language. Also, I think it’s important for people to understand that it’s a good idea to look not only at language, but their conflict management skills. That when you’re ending a relationship and a marriage, you are bringing with you your conflict management skills with you into the divorce process. And many times they just did not work in the marriage. So, they may not serve you well in the divorce process. And there’s so many resources online for that to just learn new conflict management skills and treat it more in a business like fashion to be able to step back and take their emotion out of the process. Not that they’re not to feel emotion, but during the divorce negotiations and proceedings to try to make it as business like as possible and use those skills, it will serve them well.
Jaime Davis: I like to hear you say that because that’s something that I often say to my clients, is we’re trying to navigate a highly emotional issue. You know, usually revolving around child custody, but not always. You know, sometimes folks get very attached to some of their things and just reminding them that at the end of the day, it really and truly is a business decision and should be, often helps them, you know, reach a settlement with their spouse.
Donna Moore: Right. Right. And it’s also very helpful in co-parenting also to try to develop a business relationship with the mission statement to be on parenting well together, but separately, for the best interests of their children.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, I usually tell my folks to, you know, don’t engage the other party. They want to draw you into the fray and the disagreement about whatever the thing is, you know, stay above board, address whatever the issue at hand is. But just don’t get down there in the mud and sling the dirt with them.
Donna Moore: I agree.
Jaime Davis: Do you think it’s helpful for one party to point out to the other party that he or she thinks the other party has a personality disorder?
Donna Moore: Absolutely not a good idea because it will only lend to inflaming the situation. We’re going, once again, we’re going to look at behavior and not the person. And you do not want to point out to him that their behavior may indicate a personality disorder or character disorder either. That’s not going to help anybody to point that out to.
Jaime Davis: Because they’re never going to admit it anyway, right?
Donna Moore: Right.
Jaime Davis: Do you have any recommendations for how a party should interact with the other party in a situation like this?
Donna Moore: Many times, as you said, to not engage directly because that can inflame and you take the hook. Once you take the hook and you get sucked in, then you lose your own credibility and your own footing. So to try to not get sucked into the situation, to try to take the high road. I use this phrase loosely, kill ’em with kindness. And once again, it’s about learning some new conflict management skills, some basic ones maybe from the workplace and trying to not use inflammatory communication. And also, is it, do you want to be right? Is it about being right or is it about getting the best negotiation that you can?
Jaime Davis: That’s a really good point. Do you think these tips hold true if the parties or parents then have to interact fairly regularly with respect to their children?
Donna Moore: It can make it more difficult because the thing about divorce is it’s an ending of a dream, it’s an ending of the family as we know it, it’s the ending of a marriage, and people without children are able to go their separate ways many times and not interact, but when you do have children, you have a lifetime ahead of you, of graduations and recitals and sports events and weddings and funerals and grandbabies and everything else. So, in order to interact on a fairly regular basis, it’s a good idea to develop some guidelines that work best for you and then the two of you to develop guidelines for co-parenting. But when a high conflict personality situation is involved on either side, as you mentioned before, to kind of step back and not engage him sometimes directly, but to utilize technology is very helpful in a situation like this, such as texting or email rather than in-person conversations, because you’re sitting close to each other at a basketball game does not mean you need to be talking to each other.
Jaime Davis: A very good point.
Donna Moore: And to also sort of have a guideline such as if you receive a text, if it’s not an emergency, if it doesn’t need to be handled right at that moment, to save it and to give yourself some space. Take a deep breath or write a text or an email and maybe not send it. Go take a walk, get some fresh air, come back and reread it and see whether or not it is neutral. You want to be as neutral as possible in your communications.
Jaime Davis: Because this high conflict affects the children, right?
Donna Moore: Definitely. They are the, that’s where the carnage comes up, is the research has been pretty clear there was a longitudinal research study that came out five, six years ago that children are very resilient to the changes in their families when they have a divorce. What creates harm emotionally for children, it creates in the moment, it creates anxiety and difficulty in coping with day to day life. But it also long term affects their relationships as they go through school when they become young adults and they start to develop relationships for lifetime situations. What is harmful for the kids is after they understand that there is going to be a separation and divorce they understand that their parents are not able to live together anymore and that the family is going to change this, take some time. This takes a lot of support. But they’re able to do that.
They’re able to adjust to the family changes and going back and forth with shared parenting. What they have the most trouble with and the research shows is that when parents have ongoing conflict, high conflict and the children are aware of it, that’s confusing for them, emotionally damaging for them. It’s, “why why did you separate and why are you getting a divorce if this is still going on?”. So that’s where parents want to be careful.
Jaime Davis: And if they’re not careful and if they continue to engage in this pattern of high conflict with one another, eventually, how will that impact the children?
Donna Moore: It will impact, depending on their developmental stage and their ages, it’ll affect them differently, but it can create a lot of anxiety. It can create acting out behaviors and for a 5, 6, 7 year old that could be hitting, being aggressive to other children in school with playmates and peers or siblings. With teenagers it could be trying substances, acting out sexually, in withdrawing. Be on the lookout for all children in terms of school performance and sleep. Sleep is a big indicator too.
Jaime Davis: So given the impact that a high level of conflict can have on the children, it seems to be very important that the parties get a handle on this issue early on and figure out a way to to mitigate it. Is that right?
Donna Moore: Yes. That that is the logical approach. However, being rational and understanding is not necessarily poor- it’s counter intuitive to having high personality traits and characteristics, and so that is where the attorneys and the court may want to step in and look at the possibility of having co-parenting, training, counseling put in place. And if that is not successful or in addition to appointing a parenting coordinator.
Jaime Davis: And you are apparently coordinator, is that right?
Donna Moore: I am.
Jaime Davis: What exactly is the parenting coordinator?
Donna Moore: A Parenting coordinator is a quasi official of the court that is appointed by the judge, giving a list of items that they can assist the parents in making decisions in their parenting. So you have an outside party who is either an attorney or mental health person who is trained to be a parenting coordinator. You have an outside person being appointed by the court to help you make these decisions. The overreaching goal of a parent coordinator is to assist in reducing Conflict and tension between the parties.
However, if you have folks that are perpetuating anger and distrust and rigid, inflexible thinking, then many times a parent coordinator will need to step in and make the decision for you. So it’s also about losing control of your parenting role. And so I try to explain to clients what this will look like and how they really don’t want to go in that direction unless they have to. It’s a very useful tool for the kids because it’s all about helping the children navigate high conflict. So if you’re in court and you have a parent coordinator, you are a high conflict divorce situation.
Jaime Davis: Absolutely. And I am also a parent coordinator. And one of the things that I tried to do in my work as a PC is to always air on the side of peace for the children. And that is the main goal. You know, mom may want one thing. The other parent may want something different. You know, as the parent coordinator, I might not think either one of those is a good option and I might get to make that decision for them. And so I do agree with you that high conflict folks are necessarily ceding some of their parenting control because the court is appointing a coordinator to help them.
Donna Moore: And when you think back on some of the characteristics and how it affects court, how it shows up in the courtroom that I mentioned earlier. But one of the parents is more than likely thinking, “well, we need a parent coordinator, because then they’ll understand what I’ve been through. They’ll see how difficult this is. And they’re going to help me get what I need for my kids, because I’m the victim. I’m the offended one, and I’m right.”. And that’s not necessarily so.
Jaime Davis: Right.
Donna Moore: And it can be very surprising for the parties involved when the parenting coordinator gets in there. And you have somebody making decisions on, if necessary, what bus stop is being used, how often medication is given and how you record it, dietary needs, what church they go to, what school they go to. And you really want to make the most concerted effort you can to try to negotiate things on your own before you get to that point.
Jaime Davis: And for any of our listeners who would like more information about parenting coordinators, you can check out Episode 5 of Season 1, where I discuss the topic of parenting coordinators in depth with fellow parenting coordinator Katie King.
Donna, in your work as parenting coordinator, what do you see as the most common cause of the conflict, if there is one?
Donna Moore: Well, I think there’s a handful of areas that parents overshare with their children. Many times it’s not a parent child role, it’s a parent friend role. And they overshare adult divorce issues and shared parenting custody issues. Which is really harmful for a child. They need to be children as long as they can.
Allowing the children to have too much leeway and say so in what the shared parenting looks like, telling them that if if they don’t enjoy their time at the other parents house, and if if that’s not working for them, then just let them know because they’ll come in and talk to their attorney and to the judge and let them know that we need to make a change here. And first of all, that’s detrimental to a child to give them that much control and power and they can learn to manipulate situations with that. And second of all, that’s not necessarily how it’s going to work, because that is not necessarily the way the court and the attorneys will see it. Children will have two different households, and it will – it’s always nice when you can have things as similar in each house. What there will be differences and they need to adjust to that. So parents need to support them rather than say, “Oh! You just stay with me all the time.”.
Putting adult responsibilities on the children. Such as carrying back and forth child support checks, messages, “tell your father or tell your mother or tell your brother when you see him next time that Cousin Joey has birthday party the 15th of March and he’s to bring cupcakes”, and that just puts the child in the role of messenger and negotiator and is not a good idea. Also, children can start to manipulate the situation and then they can start to refuse to visit and then that just opens up at home. Another situation that’s harmful for kids to have that kind of power.
Jaime Davis: We’ve talked a lot about how the parties can learn to deal with one another if they find themselves in a high conflict case. You know, a parent coordinator could be appointed. Things like that. Do you have any recommendations for the professionals who may be involved in a high conflict case? I’m talking about the lawyers, the therapists, the accountants who may be involved in representing these folks in one way or another.
Donna Moore: So professionals, attorneys, accountants, therapists can all utilize some of the points that I mentioned before for spouses to use, exes to use. Also, it’s about focusing on the behavior and not the person. Trying to keep it as neutral as possible, as factual as possible. Also trying to decide when to respond and when not to respond. Does this have a goal and is responding going to get me there? A great reference for that is again, Bill Eddy, who has a book called ‘BIFF’, ‘Brief, Informative, Friendly, Firm’, and he gives great examples and also shows you how to do step by step on responding to inflammatory emails, texts, phone conversations from high conflict persons. Because you don’t want to take the hook. You just don’t want to find yourself in the middle of it because you can’t get out of it. It just becomes a circular conversation of high emotion. So for professionals to set boundaries and be clear on your boundaries, “this is what I can do for you. This is what my role is. This is not okay. You’ve stepped over that boundary”, and to keep those boundaries from – to listen to your instincts. If you get that funny feeling in your gut that this doesn’t make sense or this is crazy making, then it usually is. And that’s where that’s coming from. So setting boundaries is real important too, because you are the best and you’re the most wonderful until they’re feeling disrespected, abandoned, ignored. And then you are the worst and the wrath began. So it’s not just the ex spouse that will be the receiver of these personality disorders.
Jaime Davis: Well, Donna, thank you for joining me today. If any of our listeners would like to contact you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
Jaime Davis: I hope you all enjoyed this episode of ‘A Year and a Day’. If you have any suggestions for future episodes, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like what you heard today, please leave us a review on iTunes. As a reminder, while in my role as a lawyer, my job is to give folks legal advice, the purpose of this podcast is not to do that. This podcast is for general informational purposes only, should not be used as legal advice and is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have questions before you take any action, you should consult with the lawyer who is licensed in your state.