Is it Really High Conflict Divorce or Post Separation Abuse?

Some couples can divorce amicably, some can divorce bumpy but tolerably, and some go through what is societally called a “high conflict” divorce. According to, high conflict is defined as “divorces where one or both spouses engage in negative behaviors to intentionally derail the process or inflict unnecessary emotional pain on one another.”  

However, if one spouse uses coercive tactics to gain prolonged power over their ex-spouse, “high conflict” may not be the correct labeling; it may be considered Post Separation Abuse. This is an emerging label in the mental health field and is becoming apparent in legal settings. 

What is Post Separation Abuse?

Couple fighting in an abusive relationship

Post Separation Abuse is defined as the ongoing, willful pattern of intimidation of a former intimate partner including legal abuse, economic abuse, threats and endangerment to children, isolation and discrediting and harassment and stalking (Spearman, K. J., Hardesty, J. L., & Campbell, J. (2023). Post- separation abuse: A concept analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 79, 1225–1246). 

Post Separation Abuse is considered intimate partner violence (IPV) and not only harms former spouses but shared children as well. Intimate partner violence can be defined as physical, sexual, or psychological harm by a current or former intimate partner or spouse (National Institute of Justice). 

Some forms of Post Separation Abuse are: 

  • Abusing the court system by filing frivolous motions. Abusive spouses are extremely litigious; filing motions at the drop of a hat to intimidate, coerce and harass their victim into relenting on an issue, or to make legal threats as a show of power. 
  • Abusive spouses may seek a change in custody that realistically is unfeasible, just as a means of revenge and punishment to the victim. Either way, the victim is almost always left with legal fees, time off work, and emotional depletion to fight each battle.  
  • Abusive spouses may delay child support payments or withhold payment for court ordered items such as extracurricular activities or health related issues to create hardship for the victim.  
  • Abusive spouses often threaten and harass verbally, digitally, and physically to intimidate and demean their victim. Repeatedly sending disparaging emails, bullying texts, or physically making their presence known (standing in front of their partner at a baseball game) so their partner never feels safe are all signs of coercive tactics.  
  • Abusive spouses may try and gain favor with others in the family or community by manipulating the narrative (gaslighting) in an attempt to make their victim look “crazy.”  
  • Abusive spouses do not cooperatively and collaboratively co-parent. They will do the opposite or provide a separate set of rules for their home to undermine the victim’s values. 

High Conflict Divorce vs. Post Separation Abuse

Man standing over woman who is scared

What is the difference between high conflict divorce and Post Separation Abuse? High conflict often involves both partners challenging each other, fighting in court and out, with both being equally responsible for the conflict. Post Separation Abuse is often one partner using power and control to abuse the legal system, provide false narratives and destroy the victim who must always be on the defensive.  

Family court professionals and mental health professionals must work together to recognize the abusive patterns and provide safeguards to protect victims and their children. Common Post Separation Abuse patterns in family court look like: 

  • Failure to pay child support or follow a court order.  
  • Using manipulative, coercive control language and behavior to harm victim partner, not work collaboratively. 
  • Frivolous motions filed. 
  • History of domestic violence or coercive control in the marital relationship. 

According to the Washington University School of Law, “when the abuser takes the victim to court, often repeatedly, each encounter may traumatize her again. She is forced to defend herself against her abuser, appear in the same room with him, and listen to him accuse her of wrongdoing or inadequacy. Additionally, because the court system largely does not recognize or understand post-separation intimate and judicial terrorism, the very forum in which the victim seeks safety and justice may deny her both, retraumatizing her in yet another way.” 

Results of Post Separation Abuse

Male with emotional trauma on couch in therapy

The emotional and physical consequence to the victim of Post Separation Abuse is traumatic and must be handled with care and compassion with the help of qualified law professionals, family, friends, and a licensed therapist who understands the coercive nature of this type of IPV.  

Often, victims feel: 

  • Depleted emotionally and financially. 
  • Stuck in this pattern. 
  • Traumatized to make any decision. 
  • Mistrusting and insecure of themselves and everyone around them. 
  • Heartbroken for their children whom they share with an abusive ex. 
  • Fearful of the next move their abusive ex may make. 
  • Bombarded with negativity and unable to see the good in the world. 
  • Misunderstood by family and friends. 

Divorce is difficult enough, without having to face abuse after separation, especially when children are involved. Post Separation Abuse is about coercive control and power over the victim, and is happening in courtrooms today.  

The GoodTherapy registry might be helpful to you to find a therapist if you have experienced a high conflict divorce or Post Separation Abuse. There are thousands of therapists listed who would love to walk with you on your journey. Find the support you need today.


Spearman, K. J., Hardesty, J. L., & Campbell, J. (2023). Post- separation abuse: A concept analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 79, 1225–1246 https://doi. org/10.1111/jan.1531 

(n.d.). Overview of intimate partner violence. National Institute of Justice.,former%20intimate%20partner%20or%20spouse 

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