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How to Deal with a High-Conflict Spouse

Even for the most amicable couples, separation is tough. Sometimes, both spouses decide that divorce is in their best interest; other times, one party may feel blindsided, or even dispute the idea completely. Regardless, divorce raises tensions, and these increased stress levels can cause agitation. The last thing you want to deal with during your separation is a high-conflict spouse.

Rather than trying to work towards a peaceful solution or compromise, a high-conflict spouse only creates negativity when dealing with divorce. This person may opt to disagree with everything you say, overreact to small situations, exhibit extreme behaviors, or even violence. While you can’t alter your spouse’s personality, you can adjust the way you think and act around him/her to make your interactions more manageable:

  • Stay calm. According to Psychology Today, one of the biggest mistakes people make when dealing with high-conflict personalities is having emotional confrontations. You may think that showing a person the way you’re really feeling, whether through yelling, crying, or an agitated explanation, might get them to understand your frustration. However, high-conflict personalities tend to be sensitive and reactive; your emotional breakdown will likely trigger one from them, too.
    Try to stay as calm as possible when dealing with your high-conflict spouse. (Not easy, we know.) You may want to lash out and show your pain; after all, it’s the whole situation is frustrating. But emotions are contagious! The calmer you remain, the more relaxed your spouse will stay.
  • Don’t apologize. A high-conflict spouse may blame you for his/her problems, but an apology won’t assuage the anger. In fact, it may only reconfirm prior notions that you are at fault (and chances are, you’re not).
  • Stay quiet. Minimize communication with your spouse as much as you can. If your spouse often blames you for things or argues with your every word, give them fewer words. (Think of the adage, “Lest said, soonest mended.”) Communicating by email is a great way to subdue shouting matches, and can provide evidence or records if you ever need them in court. Minimizing communication with your spouse can be difficult if you have children. Hopefully, s/he will know to keep the arguing away from their earshot as much as possible. However, if you’re concerned about arguments in front of the kids, try to arrange meetings with your spouse to only occur in public. People are less likely to lash out when they can be watched by strangers.
  • Don’t make hasty decisions. You might feel tempted to quickly decide on selling your house or manage other details of your divorce just to speed up the process. However, big decisions often carry various positive and negative consequences, and you may regret making a quick choice just to avoid your high-conflict spouse. If negotiating with him/her is too much to bear, enlist the help of a mediator or attorney to work things out without the two of you meeting face-to-face.
  • Don’t blame yourself. Your spouse’s personality is not your fault, nor is it your responsibility. You cannot alter the fact that you chose to marry this person, but you can choose to move forward with your separation and take steps towards a positive, healthy life.
  • Seek help. If your spouse has become violent, abusive (verbally OR mentally), or expresses any form of threatening behavior, you should immediately seek help from your local authorities. If you are in danger call 911. You can also reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224.

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