Many veterans of failed marriages view their divorces as high conflict because they argued and fought and experienced conflicts and confrontation; however, only few divorces are actually high conflict, according to Kathy J. Marshack, a licensed psychologist and family business coach. According to her, marriages that flounder end in divorces of three categories:
- Business-like divorce: The spouses recognize that love has fled (or perhaps never existed), and they just want to go away. The partners exit each other’s life, if not amicably, then at least civilly. If there are no children, the spouses have little or no contact after the divorce; if there are children, they handle things fairly and respectfully.
- “Friendly” divorce: The partners come to understand that they probably would have made better friends than sweethearts, so the parting is amicable, if perhaps tinged with melancholy. Sometimes the spouses remain friends and share parenting comfortably with each other and future spouses. About one third of divorcing couples end marriages with a friendly divorce.
- High Conflict divorce: These spouses go to war – a war that bankrupts them mentally, emotionally and financially, one that damages their children and themselves. The damage radiates widely into their extended families and friends. In the long run this couple pays the price because they may never be able to restore their lives to healthy functioning. The War of the Roses, a 1989 American film based on the novel The War of the Roses by Warren Adler, follows a wealthy couple that by all appearances enjoys a perfect marriage until it decays into an outrageous and mutually destructive divorce battle.
While business-like divorces and friendly divorces end in uncontested actions, high conflict divorces go court – and then drag on and on.
In a high conflict breakup, at least one spouse fuels the fire that reduces the marriage to ashes. Such people are “controlling,” according to author Patricia Evans; they are narcissistic and without empathy. While the narcissist is well aware of his or her feelings, he or she lacks imagination for the sufferings or feelings of others. The narcissist acts as if he or she is the center of the universe. His or her beliefs are the right ones; his or her perspective is the correct one; his or her actions, always justified. Absent empathy, he or she fails to understand the other’s beliefs, perspective, or actions.
The other ingredient for a high conflict divorce is the narcissist’s counterpart – a person who works for equality in relationships. This person is often nurturing and self-effacing, with a strong sense of justice. The controlling person works toward a win-lose solution to problems; the nurturing or egalitarian person works for a win-win solution. According to Patricia Evans, this places the win-win person at a disadvantage. While the egalitarian person empathizes with the controlling person in an effort to create a win-win solution, the controlling person views this behavior as weak and an opportunity to conquer.
The controlling person creates a power struggle with the unwitting egalitarian, who is “on the hook,” so to speak, because he or she does not realize that a win-win solution is impossible with a controlling person.
Personality alone is not enough to create a high conflict divorce, however. Two things make a high conflict divorce possible – motive and means.
Means generally equates to money and/or power. If one or both parties have enough money to wage a war and unhealthy outcomes do not faze them, high conflict divorce becomes likely. Healthy people retire from the conflict when they recognize the cost; those snared by the narcissistic power struggle continue to the death. Another source of means is power, which can come in a variety of forms. Being a divorce attorney is a source of power. Having a personal relationship with the judge is a source of power. Being personally acquainted with the local police and the city prosecutor helps. Being famous or having media connections is a source of power. All of these things can be used to create a high conflict divorce.
A third source of means is being irrational and tenacious. Even without money or power, a person can create a high conflict divorce through simple means. There is an axiom that the most irrational and inconsistent person in the system is in control of the system because they don’t follow the rules. If the controlling person is uncooperative, antagonistic, and dishonorable, a high conflict divorce will take shape.
Motive happens when a person feels aggrieved and justified in trashing and burning the other person. This includes dragging the children into the fray. And no matter how self-effacing the egalitarian is, he or she will fight back if pushed far enough. Thus the motive to protect and defend is aroused, and the conflict escalates, as happens in The War of the Roses.
Loving relationships require empathy to grow, but sadly it appears to be true that controlling narcissists marry egalitarians and create high conflict divorces all too often.