Divorcing an already high-conflict ADHD spouse risks ratcheting up the conflict—unless you have a strategy. In this post, I offer valuable advice from an expert, Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Over the years, I’ve witnessed many painful cases where this high-conflict divorce scenario played out to an expensive and emotionally exhausting extreme.
That is, one spouse refuses to acknowledge ADHD-related challenges in mood regulation, cooperation, reciprocity, and empathy. Typically, the spouse refuses an evaluation. But even if there is a diagnosis, treatment is often non-existent or misguided—often despite best intentions. The “professionals” fail us every day when it comes to navigating ADHD.
In fact, provocation and love of argument can be biological in nature rather than intentional or conscious. To learn more about this phenomenon, read When ADHD Leads to Self-Medicating with Arguments.
The truly tragic part? Many of these couples have endured rounds of therapy — couple therapy and individual therapy. In my first book, I entitled an entire chapter “Why the Wrong Therapy Is Worse Than No Therapy.” (Is It You, Me, or. Adult ADHD?)
Every some therapists claiming ADHD expertise don’t have it. That goes triple for many claiming ADHD couple therapy expertise. I’ve heard enough horror stories for a lifetime. It’s why I agreed to produce, with psychologist Arthur L. Robin, PhD, the first ADHD couple therapy clinical guide based on what’s been proven to work for Adult ADHD and for couple therapy. Adult ADHD-Focused Couple Therapy: Clinical Interventions
Common High-Conflict Divorce Pattern:
Back to the specific focus of this post: Divorcing a High-Conflict ADHD Partner. Here is the typical trajectory I’ve seen for years:
- The other spouse finally gives up on “making things work”. (The most common reason for leaving the relationship, as cited in my ADHD partner Survey? Too much fighting.)
- That spouse then asks for a divorce.
- Unfortunately, that’s when the high-conflict ADHD spouse’s oppositional behavior and “gaslighting” can skyrocket. Focus snaps to attention with the fear of “losing.”
- High-priced attorney called in but failure to follow through with providing requested material drags on for months — procrastination on steroids
Please Note: “Not All People With ADHD”
I rarely even use the term “ADHD Adult” (or ADHD partner or spouse). But to be concise, I am using it here. Thank you for understanding my intent.
Please understand: Being “high conflict” is not a universal challenge with ADHD. But it is a common enough sub-type to be worth talking about. Moreover, Adult ADHD is the focus of this blog.
People with ADHD are not clones. They are individuals, with individual experiences of this highly variable syndrome. Some are more likely to be bullied than to bully. ADHD also has common co-existing conditions that can exacerbate dysregulation, empathy deficits, and Executive Function challenges.
How their partners respond to these ADHD-challenged behaviors might not make a decisively positive difference but it can worsen a bad situation.
Without Strategy, Things Can Go From Bad to Worse
Sometimes, despite our best efforts to preserve marriage and family unit, divorce is the only option. We must flee the marriage for our own survival. Desperation can be so high we feel only that we must get out—and we don’t care how. That’s understandable.
Yet, we must stop to anticipate: Things could get even worse. Including for the children. How can you prevent this—or at least better manage it? This is why I advise making informed, serious steps to help a spouse get on board with ADHD management. Standard therapy doesn’t help in this regard — and can make things worse. Even what passes for Adult ADHD therapy and couple therapy falls far short of the mark.
How exactly, though, do you “strategize” divorce and custody issues with a partner whose high-conflict behavior has made divorce the only option? Talk about double-whammies.
I asked an expert in this area, William “Bill” Eddy, MCSW, JD, to offer some advice (below). I also interviewed him for my first book, Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? One point I emphasized: Don’t count on “family court” to see things as they really are. Get one’s ducks in a row.
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As Eddy points out, this problematic behavior is not just relevant to ADHD. It is common to any mental-health condition that affects behavior. The additional components of oppositional-defiant and anti-social behavior raise the odds, but ADHD can be quite enough on its own.
Eddy is an attorney, therapist, and mediator. As president of the High Conflict Institute, Eddy provides consultations and training about managing high-conflict personalities to professionals, including attorneys, judges, mediators, mental health professionals, and human resource professionals.
By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
President, High Conflict Institute
Some parents considering divorce have questions about dealing with the “High-Conflict” behavior of a partner whose untreated ADHD creates intractable problems. This is a familiar problem for any parent dealing with a High-Conflict co-parent who remains in denial about any mental-health condition.
While I refer to an ex-husband here, the same information applies to ex-wives in denial about their own conditions.
The first three tips are reminders to yourself; the last four tips are actions to take.
1. It’s Not About You!
While this is obvious most of the time, it’s a lot harder to remember when your spouse is yelling at you, blaming you, and challenging you. Just keep reminding yourself of this and ask your friends and supportive family members to remind you of this. It will give you needed energy
2. You’re Not Going To Change Your Spouse!
You already know this. But in the heat of battle it’s tempting to try. Just forget-about-it! Save your energy for strategic responses and setting limits, not counter-challenging.
3. Don’t Try to Make Logical Suggestions!
An angry, upset, belligerent bully is operating most likely out of his defensive-brain thinking, which focuses on survival and not logic. Since you’re not going to change your spouse, use the following methods to “manage” him.
4. Try Connecting with E.A.R. Statements.
These are statements that communicate Empathy, Attention or Respect.
- Try not to totally avoid him or seem unfriendly. If he has had a setback of some sort, briefly tell him you can “empathize with him,” “understand his frustrations,” “see how difficult it is,” etc.
- See if you can find something that you respect about him and mention it early and often in your conversations. Don’t do this if you need to just get away from him, but if you are sharing children, it will be a good thing to practice, regardless of what he says.
- Often High-Conflict people mirror the emotions of the people they are talking with, so try to maintain positive emotions while interacting
5. Use B.I.F.F. Responses to Hostile E-mails.
If you communicate mostly by email, be careful not to make things worse by slipping into criticisms and suggestions. Just be
- Brief (3-4 sentences)
- Informative (just necessary information without opinions or advice)
- Friendly (thanks for your question, etc.)
- Firm (set a deadline if you need a response or say that’s all you’ll say on this subject if the discussion needs to end).
6. Set Limits and Inform of Consequences.
This is what to do instead of making suggestions or giving advice. Just say, “When you do _____, I’m going to do _____.” “You’re doing _____ again, so I will now [be leaving][call my lawyer about going back to court][stop providing that extra flexibility I was giving you][etc.].”
Don’t make it a discussion. Don’t try to convince him. Just matter-of-factly tell him what you are going to do, rather than what he should do. “When you do this, I will do that.” And make sure you do what you say.
7. Choose Your Battles.
Unfortunately, this person will likely always be difficult. But you have already taken some big steps to live separately. This approach of “managing” your ex gets easier as you disengage from expecting things to be different. Set limits when necessary, impose consequences when necessary, and otherwise focus on living your own life to the best of your ability.
It’s hardest usually in the first year. Many people have moved on even though their “ex” remains a High-Conflict person.
For more information on managing a potentially high-conflict divorce or a difficult co-parent, visit the website for the High Conflict Institute.
Eddy has authored several books, including
- Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything (Kindle)
- Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce