High Conflict Divorce Part 3: Co-Parenting Children After
Co-Parenting Children After A High Conflict Divorce
It’s all your fault!
Throughout my early teens and well into adulthood I was the target of everything my mother believed was wrong with her life, including the dysfunctional marriage she had with my father. As a child I had no defense against her blame, but that didn’t prevent me from knowing my family wasn’t like everyone else’s. The ‘version’ of my mother I knew as a young child was very different from the version I lived with through my teens. When I was a young child she took care of my basic needs but was not overly affectionate and she often seemed very preoccupied. I was the well-spoken, well-dressed little girl she used as an outward expression of herself to the world, but as I matured with my own identity and was no longer her reflection everything changed. Criticism, blame and condescension became the norm in our relationship. It was during those years I learned to temper my personality and modify my behavior to avoid triggering hers and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I know now most children of high conflict parents adapt to their environment out of necessity and for survival. For them this may become natural but it should never be considered normal and it’s not how childhood should ever be experienced. Having a high conflict parent redefines our childhoods and it can affect our adult lives forever. My father often tried to quell my mother’s outbursts and behavior but he was never successful. Just like many other people I’ve spoken with who tried to fix a problem they don’t understand. But even if one parent does understand personality disorders and high conflict behavior it won’t change who their child’s other parent is. Both they – and especially their children – will need to learn how to manage life in a relationship with a HCP (high conflict personality).
Divorce may seem like the obvious solution to eradicating the chaos and drama of a high conflict spouse from your life, but when you have children it not that easy. I often talk with people who live with ongoing abuse from a former spouse years after their divorce is final that struggle to protect their children from circumstances beyond their control.
Using children to abuse their ex-spouse
In many cases a HCP will use their children as tools to control, manipulate or punish their ex. Whether it’s false allegations of abuse or claiming the other parent is incapable of caring for their child to refusing access or restricting the other parent’s time with their child – there’s no limit to how far a HCP will go to intimidate their spouse in order to get what they want. They may wear the mask of a loving and protective parent in public but the true motive is to covet the child for their own needs. They don’t want the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting, they want the attention that comes from buying the most expensive birthday gift or an audience to listen to their remarkable stories of accomplishment, whether real or imagined. As I explain later, narcissists don’t see their child as an independent person. Their child is an extension of themselves.
Don’t try to cure what you don’t understand
While this concept may be hard to wrap your head around, if you can, it explains why such people say and do things to their children the rest of us would never even consider and why trying to get them to modify their behavior is futile. Most people will sense that something about their spouse’s behavior isn’t right and may suspect a personality disorder, but the depth of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is seldom fully understood. It’s also important to understand that healthy narcissism is part of the human personality and certain diagnostic criteria must be met for someone to be reliably classified as having NPD. I’m focusing in on Narcissism in this article because I believe the ability to manage such a situation requires a thorough understanding of it and Narcissism is one of the most complex disorders that can impact a divorce.
Children are more resilient than we give them credit for but they have little defense against a personality disordered parent and the long-term effects are far reaching. Children of a narcissistic parent are never seen as who they are – a separate person. Even before birth the narcissistic parent will unknowingly project their own flaws onto their unborn child. Once the child is born the disordered parent sees their children as they themselves were treated – unlovable and defective – and they may criticize and attack the child, never recognizing that they themselves are the target. The long-term effects of narcissistic parenting conditions these children to please others without healthy boundaries, perceive their mistakes or shortcomings as something to be ashamed of and come to believe the only way to be loved and accepted is to conform. Low self-esteem, a lack of confidence, psychological co-dependency, unhealthy emotional attachments, delayed stages of development, self-criticism, feeling invisible and difficulty forming healthy relationships later in life are all potential symptoms of the child with a high conflict parent. In extreme cases of Narcissistic Personality Disorder some children may even take on the personality traits of the disordered parent if they are the primary influence on the child from an early age. And while every child will be impacted by such a parent to some degree the lasting effects will vary based on the support they receive from their other parent, their extended family and their external environment.
The legal ‘art of war’
Even the best lawyer and a well drafted divorce settlement will never completely control the behavior or drama of an ex-spouse with a high conflict personality. But, there are steps you can take during the divorce that may help to better insulate your children from conflict, strengthen your parental rights and provide legal recourse in the future. A detailed Parenting Plan which defines specific parental roles and responsibilities, that mandates visitation and vacation times, the way incidental and extra curricular child expenses are paid for and other important details is essential. Whether your state’s family court requires one or not! Every case I mediate involving children includes a detailed Parenting Plan. When it’s clear that I’m working with a high conflict couple the plan is even more specific, with greater detail, and uniquely tailored to the couple’s relationship and the level of conflict. My goal is to eliminate as much ambiguity as possible for the high conflict parent to take advantage of by addressing details that most attorneys and the court rarely do that can lead to repeated expensive and frustrating court appearances. Unfortunately, since family law attorneys and family court systems typically aren’t trained nor are they equipped to properly manage high conflict divorces of this nature, parents aren’t made aware they have the opportunity to take preventative and proactive steps to better manage their divorce and especially their ongoing co-parenting relationship with their ex.
Divorcing a high conflict spouse
Here are a few things to remember.
- Divorcing a high conflict personality requires extensive self-education on your part, planning, and working with well qualified professionals with experience in such cases, whenever possible. There are no shortcuts. Who you hire should be based on their proven experience managing high conflict personalities in legal disputes. Not their hourly rates.
- You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression when you go to court.
- Never make decisions out of frustration, feeling emotionally coerced, or because you just want your divorce to be over.
- Don’t allow details to be worked out after the divorce is final.
- Insist on creating a Parenting Plan and having it included in your final divorce decree.
The words “personality disorder” and specifically, “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” are rarely uttered in Family Court and unless your child is demonstrably at risk for abuse by your ex the court is unlikely to restrict contact between them. Handling your divorce properly and educating yourself are the best lines of defense to help both you and your child handle your relationship with a high conflict personality.