If you’re involved in a high conflict relationship with your ex, calm is probably a distant memory. Maybe you get pockets of calm before the next drama or impasse derails you. Even in these moments of seeming peace a part of you is waiting, slightly uneasy, for the next missile to hit and stir up those all to familiar tensions.
I see the impact of high conflict in my clinic, sometimes in couples but mostly in the children of high-conflict divorce. Children with anxiety, low mood and suicidal thoughts as a result of the pressure the high-conflict places on them. The continued hostilities of high-conflict parents’ hurt their child. Generally the intent behind their behaviour is to make things difficult for their ex or to make them pay for sins of the past.
Tired of the conflict and the impossible task of pleasing both parents, children often experience painful emotions and thoughts such as if I wasn’t here, this would stop or if I could just make my parent happier when I am at their house, this would stop or I wish I’d never been born. High conflict divorce means children living with constant stress and being less able to enjoy daily life including and maybe especially so important events such as birthdays and family and cultural celebrations.
There is a high price to pay for high conflict for you and your child. The cost to you is the mental stress of constantly being on guard, maintaining or even planning ways to escalate or deal with the next round of conflict. Also while you are engaged in high conflict mode, you cannot be truly free of your ex emotionally. Even more importantly it can affect your relationship with your child. Recent studies have found that high conflict homes negatively impacts the parent-child relationship.
For your child’s sake if not your own, work towards finding calm. Even if your ex continues to hold up their end of the battle, do what you can to peacefully respond. Protect your child from an ongoing war. A one-sided battle means less fuel for the fire. You may not change your ex’s behavior but reducing your high conflict behaviors significantly decreases the amount of hostility your child is exposed to.
Over the years of providing therapy to children, the lack of empathy some high conflict parents have for their child’s experience and their stance that the wrongs of the past excuse their toxic behaviors has at times shocked me. Don’t be that parent, care about your child’s experience even if you hate your ex.
How can you find calm in high conflict and protect your child’s well-being?
- Acknowledge the pain and long-term cost of your high conflict behavior on yourself and your child. Use this as a motivator to change your behavior.
- Take the focus off your ex. Instead do what you can to lessen the impact of high conflict on your child.
- Stop retaliating to your ex’s high conflict behavior. You may not be able to change their behavior but you can choose your own. Develop calming strategies to manage high emotion and stress to limit the impact of your feelings on your child.
- Shape your behavior according to your values. A helpful tool to do this is something called the ACT Matrix. This tool helps us define what matters to us and define “the person I want to be”. For this exercise defining the parent I want to be is a useful place to start. Ask yourself “how do I want my child to experience me as a parent?” Not many people start this parenting journey wanting to be remembered for being inflexible, rage-filled and lacking empathy for their child. An important part of the matrix is defining what “hooks you” into behaving in a way that is inconsistent with who you want to be. The matrix asks you to define what behavior could move you towards who you want to be and what behavior takes you away from who you want to be. The goal of the matrix exercise is to help you understand the emotions that hook you into non-values consistent behavior. I have provided an example of what a matrix in a high conflict situation could look like in the image below.
The matrix can help provide a road map for a more peaceful co-parenting behavior no matter what your ex does. It can be hard to resist your emotional hooks and you may slip into old habits sometimes. When this happens, notice with curiosity and kindness what got in the way. Make a plan for next time. Each time you do act in line with who you want to be, your child will benefit. There’s every chance you will feel calmer more often because you are grounded in your values, not in the conflict.