Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In our past instalments over the last few months we’ve covered everything from the effect of lockdown on divorces to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one whose husband announced he was leaving her to have an open relationship with a 19-year-old and another who was quite literally ghosted by her own husband.
If you have a story you’d like to share, or a topic you’d like to discuss, share your thoughts, experience or advice about, drop a line to [email protected].
This week we hear from a woman who has found herself in a high-conflict divorce, with an ex who seems intent on ruining her life. We also speak to Divorce Coach Bridgette Jackson of Equal Exes about how to best manage a hostile divorce – and how you can know you’re headed for one.
Kurt* had always had a temper. If he wasn’t happy about something – you’d soon know about it.
“It’s almost something he was proud of,” says his now ex-wife, Jane. He’d say things like, ‘I don’t mince words!’ with pride.”
In the early days though, it was a side of Kurt that Jane rarely saw. “He was always so friendly and joked around with people,” she says. “My Dad had always said to watch how a man treats the waiter when you’re out for dinner, and Kurt was always perfect.”
They had only had one argument before they got engaged, and Jane dismissed it because the behaviour seemed so out of character with who he normally was. A month later she heard him yelling down the phone at someone from the IRD and figured he must just be incredibly stressed.
Then, just 18-months after they first met, the pair got married and six-months later Jane was pregnant with their first child, a son. Another 18-months after he arrived, they welcomed a second son. But somewhere along the way, Jane started seeing more of that other side to her husband.
“He was often snarky and could be incredibly cruel,” she says. The pair had a few arguments, which escalated quickly as Kurt would begin shouting almost immediately. But on the flipside, he was also an incredibly charming, kind and generous man – and when that side of him came back out, Jane’s memories of the cruel side of him would quickly fade away.
But over the years after they married, angry Kurt seemed to be taking centre stage more often. “He got a big promotion at work,” tells Jane, “and suddenly he was so much busier, with 20 more staff reporting to him.” He spent less and less time at home and when he was home, his mind was often at work, which didn’t make raising two kids under two.
“It felt like what I was doing at home, raising our sons, always paled in comparisons to his responsibilities,” she tells. “He’d make fun of me when I’d talk about it, or cried and say that he wished he could be the one to get to stay home for the day. He’d snap at me and wouldn’t listen to what I was saying – he’d just talk over the top of me. I remember one night we had an argument because I was so exhausted and started crying, saying I couldn’t cope and he said, ‘So, what are you going to do, divorce me? Good luck!’ and started laughing.”
Jane’s friends and family started checking in on her often and carefully asking how things were going with Kurt. It was clear everyone was aware that their marriage was shaky, and Jane wasn’t her usual self. She’d avoid having people over to the house at all costs – it annoyed Kurt – yet when she was out she was terrified of spending any money.
One evening, one of her best friends dropped by on the guise of helping out with dinner/bath/bedtime for the boys, but she clearly also just wanted to check on how things were going. But part way through bath-time, Kurt arrived home – in a rage about something that had happened at work, and the fact he’d come home to ‘a mess’. He began yelling at Jane – something she was used to – despite the fact that their two boys were present and now crying in the bath, and Jane’s best friend was in the room. Her friend didn’t want to leave, but she convinced her to go home. When she came back the next morning, telling her how concerned she was, Jane suddenly felt a wave of shame come across her.
“I hadn’t realised how bad it had got,” she says. “It took my friend intervening to make me take a step back and then I knew I couldn’t stay with Kurt.”
Her friends helped her pack enough to take the boys to live temporarily at a friend’s house and two of them were sitting outside in a car when she broke the news to Kurt. As you could imagine, he didn’t take it well.
“He laughed for a long time, then turned menacing and threatening,” she says. “He told me to enjoy the next few days because they’d be the last I’d spend with our sons. He said that if I thought being married to him was hard, I was about to discover what being divorced from him was like.”
Kurt immediately hired a lawyer (who Jane’s friends have dubbed “the pitbull”), drained their shared bank accounts and launched what Jane says, has essentially felt like a war.
“Every single day it feels like there’s something new to contend with,” she says. “I thought he had a really busy job, but he’s got a whole lot of time to mess with my life.”
Jane says she has had to rely heavily on her family and friends – now having borrowed a staggering amount from her parents to cover legal bills, as the war with her ex-husband continues.
“He has tried and failed to take my kids away from me, through the court system, but he’s trying to take them away through actually manipulating them,” says Jane. “He showers them with gifts and lets them run wild – they never have to do their homework or eat vegetables! He acts like a saint to them and meanwhile leaves screaming messages on my answerphone.”
Jane thought things would get easier when he got a new partner, but it hasn’t had the effect she’d hoped for. “He still spends his time trying to make my life hell and leaves me messages saying I still need to be taught a lesson.”
Unfortunately, Jane’s situation is far from being unique. Divorce Coach Bridgette Jackson of Equal Exes sees all kinds of marriages and separations through her work and now has plenty of experience in guiding women – and men – through hostile divorces.
A hostile divorce can end up being incredibly expensive, which is where having a Divorce Coach can come in handy to deescalate the conflict, reduce the overwhelm and fear, manage emotions and cut down on those lawyer’s bills!
She says the signs can be there before you divorce that you’re headed for a high-conflict separation, but what to look out for (while you’re in it and once you’ve left the relationship!) are:
- Declarations of outcome – e.g. threatening, “I’m not giving you a penny”, “You will be sorry you started this, I’ll take the kids and you will never see them”
- Hostile/harassing communication
- A history of abuse/coercive control
- Liquidation/hiding of assets
- Withdrawal of financial support
- Change in employment income
- False allegations
- Lies, failure to comply
- Smear campaigns
- Using children as weapons
- A “win at all costs” attitude
It can be a truly exhausting experience – financially, physically and emotionally – and Bridgette recommends putting together a plan, if possible, before you leave the relationship.
This should include putting your safety first and talking through what is happening with close friends or family members that you trust, to make a plan to leave. Research what local resources are available to you and get your finances in check – ideally you should have a separate bank account as well as an emergency supply of cash. Take a copy of all financial records and check your credit report. Take out a safe deposit box to keep it all in, or use a friend’s house to store your items – you’ll want to move out your keepsakes, passport and vital documents ahead of time if possible. Bridgette also recommends creating a new email account, a new mobile plan or burner phone and changing all your passwords (including your Apple ID and/or Google password).
Once you’ve left the relationship, one of the trickiest parts to navigate can be communicating back and forth with your ex. She says her number one rule for keeping things safe is to “communicate only in writing, via text or email. And if children are involved I recommend a co-parenting app like Family Wizard or Two Houses.”
“When it comes to communication with your ex I coach my clients to remember, The BIFF response:
BRIEF: Respond only to the portion of the communication that requires a response and use as few words as possible.
INFORMATIVE: Provide necessary factual information only without including judgement or opinion.
FRIENDLY: Ensure your reply is friendly rather than hostile – include please, thank you and you’re welcome.
FIRM: Sound confident and don’t ask for more information if you want to end the back-and-forth.”
One of the rewarding parts of Bridgette’s job is helping women to put systems in place to take a lot of the stress out of a high conflict divorce. And one of the added benefits is having to spend less time and money with expensive lawyers. Because at the end of the day, she says, it’s not the legal process itself that creates divorce conflict, it’s high conflict personality types that don’t want to resolve conflict that cause the drama.
“People must remember that the most expensive thing in a divorce is actually fear,” she says. Fear, anger and hurt all equate to making bad decisions, big legal bills and conflict.”
She says the fears she most often sees women facing are those of financial insecurity, the impact on their children, the loss of the family home, social or religious stigma, a decrease in lifestyle, or feelings of abandonment, inferiority, domination, being ignored and betrayal. But knowing and recognising what those fears are – and how to manage them wisely – can take a lot of the power out of a high conflict divorce.
If you’re going through a high conflict divorce – or think you might be headed for one – make sure you reach out to your loved ones and get together a support team that can help you through it.
- * Names have been changed
THE DIVORCE DIARIES
Do you have a story to share? If you’d like to share your own experiences, tips or advice (we can keep you anonymous if you’d prefer!) please do email me at [email protected].