No divorce is entirely benign. There’s pain, heartache, anger, fierce disagreement, and intense stress. The end of a marriage brings out the worst in good people, and everyone has moments when they’re not at their best.
But sometimes, the frustration, negativity, and squabbling go well beyond the range of an average divorce—or even a typical high-conflict divorce—and turn genuinely toxic.
This scenario is called a malignant divorce.
Like cancer, a malignant divorce comes in many forms. Some are harder to fight than others. Things may seem to deteriorate—as if someone flipped a switch suddenly.
Sometimes, a couple in a loving relationship that falls apart despite efforts to function and cooperate through a breakup becomes consumed by hostility and hatred. Pent-up rage and resentments they’ve harbored for a long time come pouring out.
But usually—and these cases can be challenging to manage—a malignant divorce occurs when one partner decides they must win at all costs.
They gaslight, manipulate, stonewall, lie, lay traps, and attempt to turn friends and family against their ex-spouse.
These behaviors may be conscious (intentionally being impossible as a punishment) or unconscious (due to stress, pain, or mental health issues, they are genuinely out of touch with reality). Either situation can be harmful, complex, and even dangerous.
The rational spouse takes the brunt—their relative health, sanity, and desire to be cooperative and fair are weaponized against them. At first, they may make excuses for their spouse’s bad behavior and try to reason with them. It may take time to realize their ex is not interested in working together on reasonable, equitable solutions.
Author and psychiatrist Dr. Mark Banschick, who first coined the phrase malignant divorce, describes four main “character types” that may appear in a hostile split.
The Victim. This spouse is confident that they have been terribly wronged. They’re consumed with a sense of injustice over what the ex has done, taken away, or cost them. Paradoxically, this causes “the victim” to become ruthless and unrelenting in punishing their ex, who becomes the actual victim.
The Control Freak. Typically, the control freak is very anxious and insecure; they handle it by planning, micromanaging, documenting every detail, and trying to catch their partner in mistakes or “incompetence” that can be used as ammunition in court. They obsess over everything, trying to guarantee total victory. In many cases, signs of this behavior were already evident in the marriage but became extreme during the divorce process.
The Avenger. This person doesn’t just want to win. They want the ex to lose and suffer and are fixated on punishment.
The Narcissist. This person is self-serving, self-centered, and convinced of their superiority. They make everything about them. They’re insecure, self-righteous, prickly, and oversensitive. They think of nobody else’s needs; they disregard the love the couple once had, the life and family they built together. They bully, play hardball, slander, intimidate, dehumanize, and try to make the spouse feel crazy, weak, or small. They’re attention hogs who thrive on keeping the fire going and would instead “burn it all down” than give in. They lash out when they feel threatened.
4 Expert Tips for Surviving a Malignant Divorce:
First and foremost, if there’s any indication that your spouse’s rage could turn violent, especially if you’re living in the same house, get yourself and the children to safety. When it’s necessary to meet, choose public places during daylight hours. Know when to hang up the phone and when to call the police.
See a therapist.
The malignant divorce process will be difficult and drawn out—highly charged, emotional, painful, and frustrating. A narcissist will try to make you feel crazy. It would be best if you continued to act calmly and responsibly. Seek the support of a competent counselor to help you sort through the chaos, conflict, and upheaval of your case. It will also help you stay sane and centered for your children. Most often, the kids should be in therapy too.
Document everything—finances, interactions, events. You will need strong evidence to fight lies.
Hire an attorney who specializes in high-conflict divorce. In a malignant divorce, every detail can become a huge, contentious issue, and communication can devolve into blame, accusations, lies, and threats. It’s crucial to work with a family lawyer who is experienced in navigating the specific complexities of a malignant divorce.
Fortunately, most divorces are not malignant. But if you find yourself in this challenging situation, the skilled, compassionate, veteran attorneys at SFLG can guide you through the process and help you achieve the best possible outcome.
By Debra Schoenberg