High Conflict Separation – The very pointy end of Family Law

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What is ‘high conflict’ separation?

Some people presume that high conflict applies to marriages or relationships that have had, or continue to have, an element of family violence. Others assume that it refers to unresolvable issues in settling property matters that have brought the parties to a point where they can no longer speak to each other. It is helpful, therefore, to attempt to define different categories of ‘high conflict’ – you may find that your separation fits into one of these categories and that you are in fact in a high conflict situation without necessarily realising it.

As noted by Joan Kelly:

Conflict is a complex and multi-dimensional set of behaviours and interactions that is best understood when it is scrutinised and differentiated by mediators, evaluators, family lawyers, therapists, judges, and educators providing post-separation programs. This then provides a more sophisticated conflict framework for counselling and educating clients, mediating, decision making, and for understanding the child’s experience (Kelly, 2012)

So, how do you know if you are a high conflict person, or in a high conflict separation?

What are the characteristics of a “high conflict person”?

William Eddy (2012) describes high conflict people as having particular patterns of behaviour, including:

  • A lack of awareness of:
  1. Why they are the way they are;
  2. How they contribute to their own problems;
  3. Why they feel upset (their emotions dominate their thinking);
  4. How they affect other people.
  • A lack of ability to change in that:
  1. They are rigid and uncompromising;
  2. Their behaviours are rigidly patterned, and evoke negative responses from others – this reinforces their feeling that they are under attack.
  • A tendency to externalise responsibility for their problems in that:
  1. They see themselves as the victim, all the time;
  2. They believe that outside or external forces are responsible for their problems;
  3. They externalise their problems by focussing on a target of blame. This diverts attention away from them, and leads them into intense conflict (including litigation) with other people. (Eddy, 2012)

High Conflict People in Family Law Matters

William Eddy has suggested that high conflict people will tend to display “distorted thinking”, some of which may include the following:

  • Display all or nothing thinking and categorise others as being either friend or foe;
  • Minimise the positives of their situation, and maximise the negatives;
  • Engage in emotional reasoning by assuming facts from how they are feeling;
  • Over generalise and jump to conclusions and draw conclusions from minor or rare events;
  • Think they can mind read and in so doing project unintended or irrelevant motives on to other people;
  • Fixate on one issue and ignore all others

(Eddy, 2010)

In essence if your partner is displaying the above behaviours, it may be that they have a borderline personality disorder. There is an increasing body of research looking at managing high conflict separations where one party has a personality disorder and you should read as much as you can to prepare yourself for their behaviours.

High conflict people involved in family law matters may feel justified in:

  • Committing family violence and destroying property;
  • Hiding assets;
  • Harassing the other party;
  • Alienating children from the other parent;
  • Making false allegations of child abuse and domestic violence;
  • Filing complaints against legal and mental health professionals;
  • Publicly retaliating in the media and on the internet.
Tips for Managing a High Conflict Separation
  1. See your GP – if you haven’t got one, get one. He or she will need to know about the situation you are in. Maintain a clinical relationship with that GP and don’t doctor shop.
  2. See a counsellor or psychologist, even if you think you are coping well.
  3. Find a family lawyer that you feel you can relate to, and that can manage your situation by having advanced knowledge of relevant law, by remaining calm and not buying into any of the drama.

If you are involved in court proceedings, the following is important:

  1. Documenting abusive behaviours or incidents – including dates and times;
  2. Documenting everything that may be useful in refuting the evidence of the other party;
  3. Being proactive rather than reactive in your communications with the other party;
  4. Providing all information to your family lawyer quickly, even if you think that information will not assist your case;
  5. Being prepared to commence proceedings in the Family Court as soon as your lawyer advises you to do so.

This is general information only, and does not constitute specific legal advice. If you would like further information in relation to this matter or other legal matters please contact Testart Family Lawyers on 9854 6212, or email Marc Testart at marctestart@testartfamilylawyers.com.au.