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Sunday, March 15, 2020

Oh Crud, It's COVID-19: Considerations for High Conflict Relationships

If you’re in a high-conflict relationship and think things can’t get worse, well…they might. They might also get better, though, so let’s take a look at some things to consider during this COVID-19 emergency.

For some, fear and anxiety over both the known and unknown are making daily lives highly stressful. Are we catching something when we’re out buying what we hope is enough toilet paper? Are we spreading something if we attend our grandparents’ anniversary party? What about kissing on a date? What’s up with that guy sneezing in the elevator?

Even the most non-germaphobic among us are starting to bump elbows in greeting and grab bathroom door handles with a paper towel. This weekend I entered a Costco feeling pretty proud of myself for not panicking and left with the obligatory 30-pack of toilet paper, an emotionally necessary tub of sea salt caramels, and a slew of best wishes to and from my new checkout line friends.

So let’s add this new fear and anxiety to the constants of being in a high-conflict relationship…dread, despair, anger, frustration and so much more.

What’s at play under the surface.

You know by now that there are a lot of things going on at all times in your relationship with a high-conflict person. There’s a chess game that you may or may not know the rules to. There are long-standing patterns of interacting that aren’t healthy. There are actions and reactions that cycle you right back into those patterns with regularity.

Right now, ask yourself this: How do I typically handle stress and how am I handling the COVID-19 stress? Am I calmer and more level-headed? Am I freaking out? Am I worried for my health, my family’s health, my children, my parents? How’s my sleep? How am I eating?

Now ask yourself this: How does my high-conflict person handle their stress? Do they lash out? Do they retreat? Do they need to control more things? Do they ignore guidelines and professional advice and do whatever they want? How might this kind of new stress be affecting them?

Your answers to all of those questions will help you understand better how the COVID-19 pandemic may impact each of your reactions to each other.

If you know you are freaking out, try to remember to take a deep breath when your high-conflict person says something like, “It’s not like kids are getting it”, or “My parents have had long lives, they’ll be okay,” or “We’re all going to die.” If you know they manage their stress by micro-managing and controlling everything, try not to be surprised when they present you with an elaborate COVID-19 plan that seems way over the top. If they feel entitled to do the opposite of what people in authority tell them, be prepared for them to poo-poo your concerns.

See if you can get to a place of empathy, at least for a little while. First, have empathy for yourself: “I’m already stressed out and, despite my efforts not to, I might react badly when I don’t mean to.” And try to have empathy for them: “As awful as I think they are, there’s no way they want our kids to be harmed by this and they are probably just as concerned on the inside as I am.”

How the conflict can get better.

The first thing you can do, if you haven’t already, is assess what most of your conflict (with the high-conflict person in your life) is about. Some conflicts may disappear for a while:

Where and when to see each other

Kids’ after-school activities

Getting homework done and turned in

What church to attend

Any conflict about something that is currently cancelled, like school (for some people), work, social activity, events, travel, etc.

Now, we all know that high-conflict people might find a way to fight even if there is really nothing to fight about, but you have the COVID Card in your pocket. “We don’t have to fight about that right now because it’s not an issue.” Don’t be afraid to use it. And, if at any time you don’t feel healthy and need to isolate from that person, do it. You don’t need permission right now.

How the conflict might get worse.

Yeah, I realize that list above is kind of short. But I’m almost an optimist, ok? Here’s how the conflict might get worse and how you can start now to try to mitigate it.

Parenting time issues can be a nightmare. Sometimes with high-conflict exes with whom you share parenting time, that concept is the button that causes most of your issues. How is parenting time affected when there is self-quarantine, real quarantine, changes in work schedules, etc.? It might be good to start that conversation now.

“If one of our households needs to self-quarantine, how are we going to handle parenting time?” seems like a reasonable question to ask. Similarly, you may say, “If my household gets COVID-19 and child isn’t with me, are you able to keep child for 14 days? How can we make sure I have contact with child during that time?” “How can we work together if our kids can’t be in school for some time?”

If your anxiety went up just thinking about having that conversation, you’re not alone. But, the alternative is this…you hear that ex’s house is quarantined and your child is with you. You refuse to let child go over, ex thinks you’re withholding, files a motion for denied parenting time…and POOF you’re racking up attorney’s fees and adding to the conflict. Or vice-versa.

How about money? What if one of you has a reduction in pay and either can’t meet your monthly budget obligation or can’t pay spousal maintenance or child support? A way to broach that conversation is this, “I do/don’t anticipate that my work will be affected. How can we work together to make sure child’s needs are getting met if one or both of our incomes is affected?” Or, “How can we handle if one of us can’t meet our obligations?”

Generally, it will be good to at least ask the important questions. You may not get the answers you need or want but asking the questions will (at worst) get you each on the record with your thoughts and (at best) may encourage productive conflict resolution.

Special considerations.

You may be in a situation where your high-conflict person may try to use the COVID-19 issue to wreak more havoc on your life, not less. If you are currently in a high-conflict relationship that includes isolating you from friends and family and using verbal, physical, or emotional abuse to control you, setting a firm boundary related to COVID-19 guidelines could be difficult. Know that you have both science and government backing your decisions. If necessary, reach out to a friend or family member that can take you in.

If you have children and are in a situation in which the kids are estranged from you, this can be a particularly scary time because the other parent has the perfect excuse to continue to keep the kids away. More than ever, try to keep lines of communication open with the kids through phone calls, emails, texts, video chats, etc. so that the disconnection doesn’t get any bigger. Continue communicating with the other parent about the ongoing situation. You may find there are ways to support the kids even if they aren’t with you: offer to bring supplies, food, meals, games, etc.

If you are someone who wants to protect your kids from the other parent by keeping them with you no matter what, please don’t use this time to do that unless there are symptoms in either the child or the other parent. During times of stress, children need as many supports as possible and that includes the other parent. You may even find that the kids are more concerned than usual about the other parent if the other parent isn’t practicing good self-care or is otherwise unhealthy. Encouraging communication and electronic connection with the other parent allows for continuity of parenting without potential virus transmission.

Final thoughts.

Being in a relationship with a high-conflict person is sometimes being in a nearly-constant state of anxiety and fear. Right now we are in a time when there are additional, very real, stressors that are causing new, bigger anxieties and fears. Chances are, the COVID-19 pandemic is going to affect your daily experiences and the life of the high-conflict person in your life.

You can manage this change by reflecting on how you and the high-conflict person handle stress and observing how you are both handling this new stress. You can be proactive by asking questions and suggesting courses of action that protect you, your high-conflict person, and your kids, if applicable. You can also be aware that some high-conflict people may use this time of uncertainty to increase their antics, not reduce them.

Lastly, if you already have a mental health professional, check in with them. You may find that you need some additional services right now that you have added stress on top of your already stressful situation. Some offer teletherapy to accommodate social distancing recommendations and may be willing to work with you on creative solutions to continue supporting you.

If you are in Minnesota and need resources or a consultation about your situation and how it’s being affected by COVID-19, please feel free to call our office at 651-414-9423 or email