Unfortunately, there are several types of people who are going to be contentious in a divorce and they have to be handled differently. And many personnel involved in the divorce process do not prepare or educate the spouse of a contentious person correctly. If you have ever been told or if you suspect you are married to a borderline, psychopath, sociopath, narcissistic personality, or untreated chemically dependent person, for openers pay attention. For the purpose of this discussion, we will call this person contentious.
1. Hire an Experienced Team!
You need to hire a team that understands “making nice” will not only not work, but will put you at risk divorcing this type of personality. Find a competent therapist who has experience helping the spouse of a contentious person. Find a lawyer who has litigated against a contentious person. Make sure the lawyer is not going to escalate the process, but knows what to do when someone lies, doesn’t keep agreements, bullies, fights unfairly, controls, and escalates the process for openers. If you have a sophisticated financial situation, find a forensic accountant who knows how to find hidden money, out of integrity bookkeeping, offshore accounts etc. Make sure your team knows you have to be protected and the rules are very different. In the same way, you want a surgeon who has done thousands of “your” surgery, you want a lawyer who knows how to litigate the contentious spouse.
2. Less is More!
Practice being a robot! Get out your best monotone demeanor. The contentious personality feels they win EVERY time he/she gets you to engage about anything. You think, maybe he/she is finally rational. Maybe I was all wrong. This is one of the reasons people stay too long. You actually believe if you have 5 minutes of “normal” maybe you misjudged. Just like we always give our parents another chance because we so want them to be the best parents, we give dysfunctional behavior chance after chance after chance because we are hoping against hope that things will be different/normal/ok! Read my lips nothing has changed. Do not engage! Robot Ronnie/Monotone Millie is your new name.
3. Replace Authenticity with Logistics only!
In a normal relationship, we encourage you to find your voice, ask for what is important to you, speak your truth, be accountable by apologizing etc., not so in a relationship with a contentious person. Because he/she is driven by bullying, controlling, lying, broken promises etc. your authenticity will be used against you. When you share your “innermost” you will find it will come back in a form you don’t recognize and you can be sure it will be denigrating to you. Save your authenticity for a safe environment. Practice logistics only and only the logistics necessary for the responsible parallel parenting (note I said parallel not co-parenting.) Your life is no longer something you share. If you don’t learn boundaries and strong ones, your divorce will be an emotional roller coaster ride.
4. Have a Long-term Plan!
If you have children and have to work with this person after the divorce, the sooner you realize the behavior is not going away the better you will be. When you slip and think how could they still want to fight with me, you will probably get instant feedback “yup they do”. So write the rules down somewhere where you can quickly glance at them before any contact and follow them rigorously:
- No personal information shared
- Limited and only facts/ logistics
- No opinions, ideas, thoughts allowed
- Avoid face to face if possible
- Arrange any drop-off and pickups in public places e.g. school
- No emotions allowed
- Anything you say can and will be held against you
5. Move Forward with Boundaries
Whether you are 1-2 or 5 plus years post-divorce from a contentious personality you are always at risk for pathological engagement. Every life situation is a new opportunity to see if you are following your above rulebook. Remember this with all of your children’s special life events e.g. summer camps, graduations, birthdays, holidays etc. Anything normal parents usually discuss, you will not. Logistics only.
The contentious partner will love new bait if you happen to find someone special you want to bring into your life. So go back to your therapist to have the importance of the rigorous boundaries explained as crucial not optional. Your new partner most likely will want to “make nice” thinking this is a normal situation. It is not. The boundaries must be kept by anyone in your life. It is best but not always possible to keep your “ex” from any contact with your new love. If the contact happens your partner must be a carbon copy of you following all the above rules. Tough I know, but the only way to be successful. If you have ever helped a child through temper tantrums, you understand if you give in once you go back to ground zero and you have to start over again. The same rules apply with a contentious “ex”.
“If you allow people to make more withdrawals than deposits in your life, you will soon be in the negative. Know when to close the account.”
Dr. Anne Brown PhD, RN of Sausalito, California, is a psychotherapist, speaker, coach, and the author of Backbone Power: The Science of Saying No. Anne’s approach is especially applicable to people affected by divorce. Backbone Power is a no-nonsense self-help guide to making decisions while having backbone and integrity in all your choices, short term and long term. In addition to helping the divorce community, Anne has over twenty years experience as the trusted advocate and advisor to influential corporate leaders, trial attorneys, athletes, leaders, physicians and others seeking actionable guidance. Brown is a graduate of the University of Virginia, BS in Nursing; Boston University, MS in Psychiatric-Mental Health in Nursing; and International University, PhD in Addiction Studies. In 1997 Brown also reached a personal goal of obtaining her Black Belt in Soo Bahk Do. You can contact Dr. Anne Brown through her website: www.BackbonePower.com.