There’s a common myth about collaborative divorce that says it’s only for low-conflict couples. In part, this misunderstanding comes from a decision, 25 years ago, to call this intensive, settlement-only effort “collaborative law.” It makes it sound like it’s “friendly” divorce.

But collaborative divorce does not require that spouses feel “friendly” toward each other. Few spouses feel “friendly” during the conversations that come with a decision to divorce.

More often people are angry, emotionally distraught, or deeply hurt and scared (or all of the above). Collaborative divorce is designed for couples whose emotions are churning like this, perhaps because there’s been infidelity, or the request for a divorce seemed to come out of the blue, or because one spouse has stopped communicating. The collaborative approach that the attorneys and other professionals take in the collaborative divorce process helps sooth raw emotions rather than inflame them. Then spouses can get down to making good decisions for themselves and their families.

Not only does collaborative divorce work well for couples whose emotions are raw and for whom constructive communication is difficult, it works for couples who are actually in significant conflict. Our experience is that high conflict often happens because one of the spouses exhibits traits from one of five personality disorders. These traits become more pronounced under the stress of impending divorce and can begin to look like one or more of the following:

  • Narcissistic (“I’m very superior”)—demanding and demeaning, self-absorbed
  • Borderline (“Love you, hate you”)—overly friendly, then angry, sudden mood swings
  • Paranoid (“You’ll betray me”)—suspicious, expects conspiracies, counter-attacks first
  • Antisocial (“Con artists”)—breaks rules & laws, deceptive, enjoys hurting others
  • Histrionic (“Always dramatic”)—superficial, helpless, exaggerates, center of attention

People exhibiting these traits are often self-unaware, and, worse, they don’t respond to efforts for improvement, nor do they understand they are contributing to their own problems. Furthermore, these people don’t respond well to logical arguments, and they react strongly to criticism, threats, or personal attacks. Yet, pointing out flaws, using logic, and making threats is exactly how many courtroom attorneys approach the challenge of a high-conflict spouse. As a result, couples end up in very expensive and very timely courtroom proceedings because out-of-court settlement proves elusive.

Good collaborative law attorneys understand that with these types of high-conflict personalities, movement toward rational decision-making (necessary for settlement) will only happen in a calm and relatively emotional safe environment. This is true for both parties—the person with the high-conflict personality and the person potentially victimized by the personality. This safer environment is created in the collaborative process by the promise that neither attorney will ever take the other spouse to court, by the extensive use of empathic listening skills, by refusing to get hooked into being responsible for the high-conflict individual’s problems, by waiting to get into problem-solving and decision making until the high-conflict individual has become less reactive, and providing a lot of structure for the problem-solving and decision-making process itself.

The attorneys at Springfield Collaborative Divorce have extensive training in the types of interventions that help facilitate settlement and avoid court even with high-conflict individuals. Talk with us before you decide the collaborative process can’t work for you, or someone you know.