If Your Ex Has These 5 Disturbing Traits, He's A High-Conflict Parent

Some key differences set them apart from the average hurt, angry, and exhausted divorced parents.

Last updated on Feb 10, 2024

Child in the middle of high conflict divorce Anna Shvets | Pexels 

Whether divorced or considering divorce, you’ve probably heard the dreaded catchphrase "high-conflict parents". Lawyers, psychologists, and gossiping friends use this term to describe divorced parents who can’t or won’t put aside the animosity for the sake of their kids. When parenting children of divorce, you need patience and understanding. But, if you, the parents, have personality traits that lead to constant fighting, there are negative impacts on the children.


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If your ex has these 5 disturbing traits, he's a high-conflict parent:

1. They tend to escalate and exacerbate conflict rather than resolve it

Communicating about anything with an ex-spouse (or soon-to-be ex) can be challenging. Sometimes, it’s excruciating, especially in the early stages of separation and divorce. Fights might be frequent. It only takes one parent in a couple to create the appearance of high-conflict parents. When both parents are high-conflict people, the drama is unstoppable.

We believe if a problem is resolved, the conflict will fade. Not so with the high-conflict parent. It is not about the problem with this person. They are uncompromising and unforgiving of anyone who disagrees with their point of view. Children sense this and are intimidated to speak their feelings or truth around these parents. This parent’s goal is to be viewed as authoritatively right rather than to resolve issues.


he is aggressive, she is pushing him away

Photo via Getty

2. They have difficulty managing their emotional reactions

This is the person who doesn’t regulate or recover after getting upset. It can take a very long time for them to get past any perceived or real slight. People often feel they are walking on eggs around them. Sometimes, the high-conflict parent uses their emotional dysregulation to keep people in line, including children. The kids don’t want to upset this parent. It’s a form of emotional control and intimidation.

3. They need to externalize all responsibility — and the ex-spouse is a handy target

This parent believes that nothing they do is a part of the issue. Any problems are attributed to other people, including the children. They refuse to entertain the idea their behavior might be playing a part. Therefore, it is ineffective to ask this parent to change their behavior.


4. They don't seem to have understanding or empathy for others

Sometimes, they pretend to feel for others, but it is a cover-up. This is often camouflaged during the marriage, usually until a crisis point. These parents are often self-absorbed and unable to acknowledge other people’s pain. This, unfortunately, applies to children as well. Professionals can educate these parents about what’s best for the children, but the parents will usually make self-serving decisions.

5. They indulge in vindictiveness

Probably the most damaging hallmark of the high-conflict parent is vindictiveness. They take pleasure in striking back at the ex, whom they perceive as having caused them hurt. They have no regard for how this may affect the children. This parent will also strike out at the children if they feel rejected by them.

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Most of the conflict between divorcing parents — the most intense and frequent — occurs in the first year after separation or divorce. It makes sense. Though it’s a tall order, the average parent stabilizes and begins to shape a "new normal" somewhere between a year or two following the breakup of a marriage. The high-conflict parent is different. Each stage of uncoupling followed by rebuilding after divorce becomes an opportunity for them to fight with their ex, create chaos, and keep the flames of bitterness, blame, and vindictiveness alive.

Unfortunately, the conflict typically revolves around issues related to the kids, such as parenting schedules, extra-curricular activities, school activities, and so on. If you are serious about protecting your children during and after your divorce, it’s time to evaluate whether you or your ex or both of you could be a high-conflict parent.

All the hallmarks and personality traits of the high-conflict parent include parental behavior damaging toward the children. In many cases, these parents can’t isolate their dysfunction from their kids, and kids will naturally do things to exacerbate the high-conflict parent during and after divorce.



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What can you do if you suspect your ex is a high-conflict parent?

1. Do not engage the high-conflict parent in conflict.

This sounds nearly impossible. I get it. You will not agree with all this parent offers as "solutions." Some high-conflict parents offer unworthy solutions so you appear uncooperative when you reject the idea. You can reject ideas and offer alternative solutions, but do it — ideally — without engaging in conflict.

2. Maintain a professional attitude and demeanor with the high-conflict parent

Their goal will be, at times, to incite rage in you. You will be pushed to the limit on many, many occasions. Do not give in, cop an attitude, ignore, or call them any names, even if it’s deserved. This will probably be one of the most challenging things you’ve ever had to do. But you can do it.

3. Share your situation with only close, trusted friends and family

You are not serving yourself to spread the word about how ridiculous the high-conflict parent is. However, you may find that they will create situations where it becomes necessary to inform people. For example, if the high-conflict parent creates chaos at your children's school (maybe changes your contact information with naive office staff), you will quietly and discreetly share with someone in charge about your situation.

mother patiently explaining to daughter


Photo: LightField Studios via Shutterstock

4. Empathize with your children if they are on the receiving of conflict

It’s best to avoid joining with them in their misery. "I know, they did something to me also…" is not soothing to them. Their sharing with you should be about them. They need you to be the parent who is grounded, safe, and listens. You can share with a trusted friend, therapist, or family member.

5. Maintain boundaries with the high-conflict parent

Don't give in on a limit you have set with them. You may be reasonable, compromising, and flexible in all other areas of your life. Don't think being reasonable and flexible with the high-conflict parent will earn you any reciprocity. This type of parent is not a prosocial kind of person. Stop expecting them to change. Remember, you are setting precedents for the future, so you must be consistent, firm, and business-like. Get connected with a good therapist or divorce coach. You will need support and strategizing to maintain boundaries with the high-conflict parent.


No matter the causes of divorce, you need to accept that life is not going to be smooth sailing if your ex is a high-conflict parent. However, you can be instrumental in calming the tornadoes that this parent can create and avoid the harmful effects of divorce on children. Keep your ship afloat, avoid indulging in reactivity or a pity party, and you will find the high-conflict parent becomes less interested in looking for ways to cause trouble.



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Ann Cerney is the director of Cerney Divorce, a coaching and parenting mediation practice in the Chicago area. Ann's goal is to facilitate a powerful conversation with people who are interested in not only recovering but rebuilding a better life after divorce.