Can mediation help in high conflict divorce cases?

Mediation can be an effective tool for resolving high conflict divorce cases

But what is a high conflict divorce?

One definition is - A high-conflict divorce can be characterised by a high degree of volatile emotions, and is often tumultuous and traumatic for spouses. It is a divorce where one or both spouses engage in negative behaviours to intentionally derail the process or inflict unnecessary emotional pain on one another. The term is used to describe divorces involving one litigant who has a personality or a personality disorder in which they are driven to conflict. This behaviour is often designed to specifically hurt the other person

What does a high conflict divorce look like? Here are some examples of what we see in these types of cases.

  1. People being rigid and uncompromising
  2. Negative emotions dominating people's thinking
  3. People being unable to reflect on their own behaviour
  4. Difficulty in empathising with the other person
  5. People who are preoccupied with blaming the other person
  6. People who avoid responsibility for a problem or finding a solution for it
  7. Refusing to accept proposals even when they are reasonable
  8. Moving the goalposts when an agreement looks likely
  9. Quibbling over details
  10. Introducing new issues at the 11th hour

What we do try to recognise in mediation is that some of these behaviours may be because people are at different stages of coming to terms with the breakdown of their relationship. Conflict can exist because couples are at different stages of the grief cycle, often referred to as the Kubler-Ross grief cycle. One person may be in denial, leading to anger whilst the other person is on the way to acceptance. Emotions are powerful things and can shape how we deal with and react in certain situations. For some couples in mediation this can feel like their spouse is talking a different language to them and just doesn't understand how they are feeling.

Mediation can be helpful in these types of cases because the mediator can help a couple communicate their feelings in a way that focuses the attention on moving forward, whilst also recognising people may well be at completely different stages of coming to terms with the breakdown of their relationship. Mediation is conducted in a non-adversarial setting and promotes positive communication.

When we are working with couples who are experiencing what they or we would term a "high conflict divorce" here are some strategies we can use:

1. Our experience in high conflict cases: A mediator with experience in high conflict cases can help manage the emotions and keep the conversation focused on the issues at hand.

2. Using a highly structured mediation model: A highly structured mediation model, with clear agenda’s for meetings can help keep the conversation on track and prevent it from descending into unproductive arguments.

3. Consider pre-mediation coaching: Pre-mediation coaching can help prepare people for the mediation process and provide people with the tools they need to manage their emotions during the mediation.

4. Focus on the future: In mediation, the focus is on what to do now, not on what happened in the past. Focusing on the future can help prevent defensiveness and keep the conversation productive.

5. Keep the conversation contained: Mediation allows for conflict, but it is contained so it can't be blown out of control. A mediator can help keep the conversation contained and prevent it from escalating.

6. Know when to stop: A mediator should know when to stop the parties if a conversation is going off on a tangent or is becoming unhelpful. The mediator will help everyone focus on each issue that needs to be discussed and resolved.

7. Consider Collaborative law or Arbitration: If mediation is not successful, Collaborative law or Arbitration may be a good alternative to traditional litigation. Sometimes, in mediation, agreements can be reached on lots of the issues but then maybe there are 1 or 2 issues that remain unresolved. Collaborative law or Arbitration can help deal with the remaining points so that the court process can still be avoided.

Overall, mediation can be a useful tool for resolving high conflict divorce cases. By choosing the right mediator, utilising a structured mediation model, and focusing on the future, couples can increase their chances of reaching a final resolution that would take many months to achieve in a court setting and would also cost significantly more. Court can also fuel the conflict because, by its very nature, it is an adversarial process.

If you would like to discuss whether mediation might be appropriate in your circumstances emails us at or call us on 0800 206 2258 or book a free call at a time that suits you via our website


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