High-Conflict Co-Parents Love Starting Holiday Drama. This Year, Please, Don’t Let Them.
DISCLAIMER: This is not legal advice.
No one signed up for this pandemic. Uncertainty, fear, anxiety, isolation, grief, sorrow, and rage have touched us all. Parenting in 2020 remains an amplified experience. For many dealing with high-conflict co-parents to boot, this year has been a doubly stressful hellscape.
This is because high-conflict co-parents (HCCs) have a pattern of difficult behavior that antagonizes conflict rather than reducing or resolving it. According to experts, this pattern repeats across many dynamics and situations. In co-parenting, how the high-conflict personality approaches problem-solving can drastically impact the quality of life for all involved.
Co-parenting (or parallel) with high-conflict people is traumatic. The challenge is to identify the behavior cycles, conscientiously observe if it’s likely from a healthy or unhealthy place, and then implement conflict-mitigation strategies to protect your time and energy.
There are many reasons high-conflict people often ramp up their strategies during the holidays. This year, of all years, please consider an alternative by arming yourself with more sophisticated approaches. A wise man once said that we learn best from other’s mistakes. So here’s John’s story. He hopes it helps you.
It’s December 8th, 2020. John has been busy at work making year-end numbers and eagerly anticipates the approaching Christmas break. After a treacherous year for his sales department, he’s looking forward to closing out the year with his 10-year-old son, Noah, and a new girlfriend, Sara.
John takes his girlfriend Christmas shopping. They enjoy their first restaurant since March. As they leave for the evening, the social distanced Santa, light snow, and holiday music lighten the dread he’s felt for the last nine months. John feels almost…cheerful. Happy.
On the way to Sara’s apartment, “Caroline” flashes across John’s text notifications. Sara sighs. 10 months of dating and she knows how these exchanges impact John’s mood. For the rest of the evening, he’ll be annoyed, worried, and stressed. So much for Christmas movies and sex.
Noah’s mom, Caroline, is a high conflict addict needing a fix. John is like her reliable heroin supply. Caroline is also subconsciously starting a path of parental alienation and building a narrative that John is an unengaged parent. A court hearing to restrict his visits or ask for more child support is ahead. Retaliation for the new girlfriend.
The exchange goes like this:
Sara went to bed early. John pondered the exchange most of the night. Was she lying? Why would she do that? Did Noah feel abandoned? John had worried the divorce would impact him emotionally, like John’s parent’s divorce had done to him. For six hours he mentally backflipped over the meaning of the exchange and what to say to their son.
Caroline won a game John never wanted to play. And John let it happen.
John was trying to have an amicable relationship with Caroline and doesn’t want to appear uncooperative if (when) they go to court. So he took the bait because old habits are hard to break. In this situation, John was both a victim and an enabler.
Here’s what John didn’t know about his own co-parenting responsibilities:
- John was under no obligation to answer this text bait in the first place. When dealing with high-conflict people, he should have a mandatory 24-hour response rule. When he does reply, he should be brief, informative, polite, and about the issue at hand only. Many high-conflict people have to feed their impulsive drama addiction and will eventually go elsewhere for their fix. Some call this tactic “grey rock”.
- John intends to follow court orders and pick Noah up for Christmas possession. Reasonably, John should provide Caroline with a 30-day notice. The more notice, the better. 14-days at the latest. He still has time to do so. He’s under no obligation but to be civil, be honest, and follow court orders.
What could John have done differently?
- John communicated his visitation intentions through Noah, not Caroline. He dreaded even routine exchanges, which always ended in chaos, so he hadn’t sent a notification just yet. Visitation arrangements should be made promptly through parents, not children. By procrastinating the interaction, John put Noah in the middle of issues with Caroline.
- It’s December 8th. John told Noah about Christmas together in November. Caroline should never have to ask if John is going to exercise visitation, especially for an important holiday. John should have sent a formal, professional notice early.
- Caroline’s specific claim about Noah’s alleged worries does not need a response. John has no history of breaking visitation with Noah or not taking full advantage of his visits whenever possible, so Noah is not likely to feel nervous. Unless coached or manipulated to change their feelings, children don’t drastically change their feelings about an otherwise loving parent. This message isn’t about Noah’s nerves. This is about Caroline’s high-conflict personality craving provocation.
- John does not need to ask his co-parent why his child feels a certain way. Next time Caroline tries to speak for Noah, John could ask if she has a specific concern she would like to address? If not, the vagueness is a lure to continue the conversation that leads to conflict and should be ignored. Noah’s feelings are a discussion for John and Noah.
- The last two exchanges set the conditions for emotional manipulation. Caroline now postures herself as the arbiter of Noah and John’s relationship, which is how she remains relevant. If Noah has questions about John’s visitation schedule, John should set the conditions to encourage Noah to talk about that with John during their visit. Not with Caroline.
- John has not yet changed Caroline’s name to only her phone number (Caroline vs 555–555–5555) on all devices. Names associated with individuals that have caused us pain and trauma can re-trigger these feelings just by reading the name. This continues the emotional attachment to her and (in some courtrooms) may invalidate the correspondence screencaps as evidence.
- Lastly, John should have already moved all of his correspondence and visitation arrangements over to a co-parenting app like AppClose (free) or Our Family Wizard (paid). Rather than engaging in back-and-forth communication, the co-parents can follow a calendar that would have shown visitation without the need for extraneous conversation. Plus, all communication is cataloged for eternity and admissible in court.
Co-parenting arrangements with difficult people must be treated as a professional matter. Because John did not treat visitation like he was scheduling an important appointment for an in-demand experience simply to avoid Caroline, he invited manipulation and conversation that inevitably led to conflict.
In the future, John must protect his mental space by treating communication with Caroline like a business arrangement. He should arrange visitation in a formal request, not engage in emotional manipulation bait, and only respond to direct questions or concerns about the child’s health and welfare after 24 hours. When he does respond, the answers should be short, polite, civil, and factual. Nothing more, nothing less.
If you’re reading this, you’ve survived a pandemic. You’ve earned peace. This holiday season should be a time of reflection, pause, gratitude, love, and togetherness in whatever ways possible. Enduring the pain, stress, and uncertainty of COVID-19 has been enough — don’t let high-conflict co-parents add to these anxieties.
Your children have had quite the year, too. They deserve a parent that’s fully present for the holiday magic and warmth around you. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours. Love yourself.