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High-Conflict Divorce and Problematic Thinking Styles

Approximately 80% or more of high-conflict divorced families have at least one parent with a personality disorder.  One of the hallmarks of a personality disorder is the pattern of distorted or problematic thought process.  Another is their impaired interpersonal relationships.  These thoughts understandably create havoc on their relationships.  Some adults may use a problematic thought style without a personality disorder. It is understandable why so many high-conflict cases involve problematic thought patterns such as the ones listed below:


This is the person that overacts to triggers and immediately assumes the worst possible outcome.  When children do this they may overreact and think that a failed science grade means they will fail the whole semester. From there they will assume that this means they will have to go to summer school resulting in not being able to get a summer job which means they will not be able to get a car and their friends will dump them.  Some high-conflict parents who catastrophize will over-react when things happen and not be able to see the reality of what is really happening because their fear leads them into worst case scenarios. They will not be able to “pick their battles” with the other parent because everything is rated a 9-10 on the drama scale.



This adult has an exaggerated sense of self-importance. For a child they may over rate their sports skills or think they know more than the adults in their life.  Adults with this type of thinking tend to be highly judgemental and have unreasonable expectations.  Some will act entitled and do not see when they are expecting a different standard for their co-parent than themselves.  Double standards are common place but not recognized.


This type of thinking is often referred to as “jumping to conclusions.”  This person may make a logic-based statement but with missing obvious steps. Often a logical leap is when they assuming to know what someone else is thinking. For instance, a child might assume that everyone on her soccer team hates her, or they are talking behind her back. Another common error is when they assume that others will know something (read their mind) which leads to significant misunderstanding and conflict.  In high-conflict divorce one of the biggest errors in jumping to conclusions comes when one parent assumes that the other parent is doing something “on purpose.”  These negative assumptions then impact on their reaction and the conflict becomes worse.  Giving each other the benefit of the doubt is very important when it comes to effective co-parenting but many parents will refuse to do so.  They would rather think the worst and be “right” rather than cooperative.


This is common in young children who may believe they can get their parents back together just by thinking it to happen.  This pattern is most common in children or adults with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but also seen in people with bipolar disorders.  They believe that if they do something a certain way (ritual) they can avoid harm to themselves or others. Some magical thinkers may come to feel that a ritual behaviour will bring about some positive event.


This type of thinking is also referred to as “splitting.”  Although this is normal in young children it is not normal for adults.  The world is made up for more gray area than not but this individual does not have the capacity to see shades of gray.  They will either idealize or condemn others. They will see themselves as a success or a complete failure. They will view their co-parent as all bad and are at risk of viewing their child as all good or all bad.  In the high-conflict divorce case this is extremely problematic for the other parent and eventually for the child.


These people are often seen as naïve or overly positive.  They are on the opposite side of the continuum of the person who catastrophizes.  They may refuse to see the good or bad side of others or situations.  They may even minimize their own positive qualities.  In high-conflict divorce this parent may minimize the importance of their child’s need for exercise, their allergies or even physical risks.  This will obviously create anxiety in the other parent when they view the parenting issue as far more important.


This is when the person assumes they are the center of the universe and that their behaviours caused things to happen. For example, the adult may believe that their dating caused the other parent to move.  They also turn even random comments into comments about themselves and react accordingly.  Unlike the self-centred individual these adults tend to over identify with even minor comments and think everything is a personal attack on about them.  “I know she said that so I would overhear.  She doesn’t like me!”


Projection is less of a thought style as it is a coping mechanism that is used with impaired individuals.  They tend to have a very fragile sense of self and must project what they are doing onto the other person.  They blame so frequently that some will even convince themselves that what they are doing is being done to them instead.  This wreaks havoc on relationships of all kinds



A person who is thinking in a paranoid manner may seem to just be catastrophizing.  However, paranoia is far worse because they believe others are out to get them. In its extreme form, paranoia can turn into delusions.  Delusions are irrational thoughts that are not based in reality. Many bipolar people experience less severe forms of paranoia because of personalizing events, catastrophizing, or by jumping to conclusions. An individual with mild paranoid thoughts might feel that their co-parent is stalking them because the co-parent has driven by their home.

Most of these thought styles are mildly delusional. Children may pass through stages in which they may or may not experience these thought styles. Children typically outgrow them. Adults with seriously delusional thinking are functioning in a “reality” that is even further from reality, and can include holding persistently strange beliefs. For example, a co-parent may insist there was a physical altercation with the other parent than never occurred.  When it is delusional the individual believes it actually occurred.  More likely is the co-parent who has fabricated and their allegations are motivated by revenue.  That is not the case in a delusional thought disorder.

It is important to recognize that the adult who uses these thought styles does not do so intentionally.  Their thinking is impaired and they do not deliberately choose to have these thoughts.  They are anxiety based and/or coping mechanisms for personality disorders.  Although compassion is the best approach, these individuals create tremendous pain, misunderstanding, allegations and legal expense for the co-parent.  Worse yet, the child with a parent who has one or more of these thought process creates significant confusion and pain for their child.

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