A stereotypical divorce is one that’s usually difficult, painful, and unhappy. In this episode, Virginia Gilbert joins host Jennifer Hurvitz to discuss how to recognize a high-conflict divorce and how to get through it. Virginia is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in the treatment of high-conflict divorce. A Clinical Associate at the Center for Healthy Sex, she learned how to help adults challenged by sexual compulsivity. She is also a freelance writer who has written hundreds of articles on divorce and mental health topics and published her first book, Transcending High-Conflict Divorce: How To Disengage From Your Ex And Find Your Power.
Listen to the podcast here:
Getting Through A High-Conflict Divorce With Virginia Gilbert
This is going to be an extra special episode for me. Usually, I’m always talking about happy divorce this, happy divorce that, co-parenting and how wonderful happy divorces can be, but I have a special guest with me who’s going to help me out. Oftentimes, divorce is not happy. Divorce does not come easily. Divorce is not amicable. It’s tough and it’s hard. A lot of my guests are reading this going, “I wish I could have it as easy as Jennifer, but I don’t.” What do I do if I have a high-conflict divorce? I have a special guest with me who specializes in high-conflict divorce and how to disengage from your ex if you have problems that you can’t fix. My guest is Virginia Gilbert.
Virginia Gilbert is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. She specializes in the treatment of high-conflict divorce and sex and love addiction. She’s a freelance writer and has written hundreds of articles on divorce and mental health topics. She published her first book, Transcending High-Conflict Divorce: How to Disengage from Your Ex and Find Your Power, which is available on Amazon. I know for a fact that it’s doing phenomenally. I’m excited to have her. Virginia, welcome to Doing Divorce Right. Thank you for coming. I’m glad you’re here.
I’m happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
I’m glad to have you because I’m always saying, “Happy divorce, you can do it,” but what a lot of people are in typical situations and don’t know how to get out of them. They’re struggling. Tell me what makes a divorce high conflict. What causes it?
I want to say that most divorces, initially, there’s a level of conflict. In a garden-variety divorce, the conflict dies down after about a year or so and people get into a good co-parenting routine. There is a whole bunch of other divorces that don’t ever get better. They don’t get through that high-conflict stage and they stay acrimonious for years. People can’t co-parent effectively and that happens. There are different types of people who find themselves in that situation. One type of person is what we call a high-conflict personality. They tend to have features of personality disorders or full-blown personality disorders, meaning they are narcissistic, borderline or histrionic. People like that have rigid ways of looking at things or the way they interpret reality is distorted.People who don’t get through the high-conflict stage of divorce can’t co-parent effectively. Click To Tweet
It’s like, “I’m the good parent and you’re the evil parent.” They feel victimized by divorce and they don’t see their part in things. Another person is people who have attachment disorders, meaning they are insecure in general in their relationships. They can be ambivalent about the divorce process. Some of the conflicts they create are because they haven’t resolved the fact that their life, as they had it and imagined it, has ended. The other kind of person is reasonably well adjusted, but they tend to be highly reactive. They’re reacting to somebody who maybe has a stronger personality and they’re traumatized. They have big emotional outbursts and they do things not realizing that they’re inviting conflicts. This is the person who will get into this email volley with an ex and try to give them an epiphany or give them parenting advice. I see a lot of conflicts played out over emails and those people are workable because they want to learn how to regulate their emotions. They’re the most conscious of this group.
I’m like, “That sounds like me, the third one.” I feel like I could have been that way perhaps if I hadn’t maybe thought about my children first. This is interesting to me because I can think of people that I know that fit in all of those places. I’m glad you’re here because I do feel like there are many people that need you. Your book, I can’t wait to get it. I’m sorry that I have not ordered it yet but I will. It sounds fascinating to me. I public speak all the time and I feel like I need to put you into my little blurbs here because you’re fantastic. What are we doing?
There are a couple of different phases in this. The most important thing is to think of divorce as a developmental task. What do I mean by that? In life, there are developmental stages. When I talk to people about high conflict divorce, I liken this stage to how children develop. When children are little, they think of their parents as the most wonderful people in the world and they feel like they’re one with their parents. When it comes time for adolescence, it’s like, “Who are you? You suck. Go away. You embarrass me.” The children who go on individuated and become functioning adults, at some point, they develop their own identity. They look back at their parents and they go, “You know a few things and I like hanging out with you.”
They develop a more mature relationship. The kids who don’t do that, this failure to launch kids that blame the fact they don’t have a relationship or they don’t have a job on their parents, they’re stuck developmentally. It’s similar to high-conflict divorce people. Here they’ve gone from the beginning of a life together, loving their spouse and having this picture of how life is going to go to divorce, which is like, “You suck. I hate you. I can’t believe I was ever with you.” Those amicably-divorced people are able to get to this phase where they look back at their ex and they go, “You have some redeeming qualities. You can co-parent. I’m going to put my feelings for you aside because we had these kids together.” Those people go on and thrive, but the high conflict people get stuck in that stage of, “Screw you. You suck. I hate you.” My job is to help those people complete the developmental task of divorce, which is moving from blame like, “It’s all your fault,” to empowerment.
Is it possible to do this if just one person can get there but the other one can’t? For example, a person is completely done. I feel like he can move on amicably. He can take the blame and he is moving forward, but his ex is nowhere close.
That’s why I wrote the book. In high conflict couples, it’s common that one person is never going to develop. They’re just going to stay angry for years, maybe forever. That doesn’t mean that you can’t empower yourself. It’s critical to take accountability for your own personal growth. If you have an addict in your life, you can’t make them stop drinking and stop doing drugs, but you can manage your relationship with them so that your life does not revolve around that crazy person. It’s similar to high-conflict divorce. Let’s say you are the more rational of the two. You can learn ways to minimize conflict and to stop being preoccupied with your divorce. To be honest, look at your own stuff and figure out what behaviors you need to change. Those people, I see them make enormous strides. They go from being preoccupied with their ex to accepting that that person is never going to change. Let’s say you are divorced. They’re not going to have a divorce that looks like other people’s divorces. You’re not going to like it, but you can accept it. Once you accept it, you can choose how you want to act instead of just reacting to your acts in ways that don’t serve you.
To take the power in yourself, right?
Are there any strategies you can share with us?
The first thing is to get a communication strategy nailed down because I see so much warfare going on via text and emails. People get uninhibited because they do not face to face. They’re bombing on emails and texts. If you get a hostile text from your ex and if you’re not monitoring yourself, it’s easy to get defensive, lash out and write 500-word single-space emails. If you’re sending that to somebody who’s high-conflict, what are you going to get back? I work with people on stop trying to give your ex an epiphany. They are not going to change. There is a brief strategy for how to communicate via email. The first thing is you’re concise. You say as little as possible.One reason people stay stuck is because they haven't defined their post-divorce identity. Click To Tweet
I don’t do that, Virginia. My boyfriend is good at this.
You’re a reporter, so you are communicating information. The information is, “Sally has a dentist’s appointment next Thursday at 4:00. Can you take her?” Information is not your emotions, opinions or how you think the other person should parent. It’s not any of that stuff. It’s completely objective. You want to have a tone that’s neutral. You want to be as boring as possible. There’s no sarcasm and then you want to be firm. I see a lot of people having these protracted negotiations about things on email. You’re firm, you set a limit and you stick to it. If there’s a lot of fighting and threatening going on over email, maybe you need to contact your attorney. If you can get that strategy down and respond like that consistently over time, your ex will probably calm down a little bit because they’re trying to get you to push your buttons and you’re not being pushed. There’s less for them to fight with and at least you’re not inviting more conflict.
This is true. When my boyfriend and I fight and if he does exactly what you’re saying, I get more worked up because I’m like, “Why isn’t he fighting with me? This is all in your book, right? I feel like I want my readers to take notes.
It is all in the book. The other part is people in bad divorces have divorce PTSD. Meaning they’re traumatized because they’re in a war zone that doesn’t stop. When people are traumatized, they tend to be highly emotionally reactive. Meaning they have reactions to things that are beyond what would be expected. They are hypervigilant and they’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. They’re anxious all the time or they get super depressed. It’s important to manage your emotions. You’ve got to practice self-care and you’ve got to exercise. You’ve got to eat no divorce diet that will make somebody clinically depressed. You have to eat little meals if you feel like you can’t eat a whole meal, but you’ve got to eat. You’ve got to sleep properly. If you can’t sleep, maybe you need to go to your doctor and think about some medication for a while in order to sleep. Therapy is great. I find that any creative endeavor is helpful for people because it’s a subconscious way of processing painful experiences and emotions. You’re in the moment when you’re being creative and then you have a finished project, whether it’s a meal, a garden or a blog post. You have something that you feel good about.
Writing a book, for example?
Which is what I did. That’s what you do.
A perfect example is turning something painful into something positive. I also have tools. The third part of my book is tools for empowerment. It’s working on your own personal growth. For a lot of people, one reason they stay stuck is that they haven’t defined their post-divorce identity. I see this a lot, especially with women, their whole thing has been wife and mom. You’ve got to be something else now. I have actual exercises in the book for people to define their values. It’s like a divorce inventory where you write down all the reasons why you’re resentful of your ex or your children who took the ex’s side or your former mother-in-law. You write down all your resentments of those people and think about how it affected your life, what you could have done differently and then what you’re going to do differently going forward. You talk this through with your therapist or you talk this through as an objective person. It’s similar to what people do in twelve-step programs. It’s a way of getting rid of what’s dragging you down and committing to moving forward.
That’s important because a lot of us don’t take responsibility. You have to say and accept what you did, so you can move forward in a healthy way. A lot of us don’t. We don’t take any accountability for what went wrong. You have to do that to move forward.
That’s part of growing up. Another thing I do is ask people to write a personal mission statement, which is what businesses do. They’ve defined their values, their mission and what they’re about. I have an exercise where I have people think about who they are now and what they want to do going forward. If you’re clear about your values and your intentions, and your actions are not lining up with those, then you’re more aware of it and you can change your behaviors. One common thing I see that both sexes do, both genders, but especially women, is say, “I want to have a good relationship this time. I want to be with somebody who can commit and is emotionally available.” They’re hooking up with dodgy people on Tinder and then they wonder why they’re not happy. If this is your intention, you want to have a successful relationship, maybe you need to be with different kinds of people.Seeing divorce as an opportunity for growth will make you feel more empowered and get you out of that victim position. Click To Tweet
Put out there in the world on what you expect to get back. Virginia, are you available? I know that you’re an American family therapist. Do you do Skype sessions?
Yes, I do Skype sessions a lot. I do divorce coaching because I work with people all around the country. I only practice therapy in California. Coaching is a little different. It’s more goal-oriented than therapy, which is more about emotions. I find coaching for divorce effective because you need to get out of your emotions. You need to have strategies and you need to be a little bit more goal-oriented.
I’m a relationship coach and I did the dating stuff. I love to help people on their online dating profiles and dating. That’s more my jam. It’s hard and tough. This is awesome and amazing. Tough people need you. Your book sounds amazing and I can’t wait to read it.
Could you tell me where everybody can find you?
My website is www.VirginiaGilbertMFT.com and you can learn more about me on my website. You can buy the book on my website. You can go to Amazon directly and get my book there. You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
The name of the book is Transcending High-Conflict Divorce: How to Disengage from Your Ex and Find Your Power. Everybody, write that down. I feel like people need to get their pens. Let’s recap. Is there anything else we need that we didn’t touch upon? One more big nugget or anything big?
I have a belief in people’s ability to grow. As hokey as this may sound, if you see your divorce as an opportunity for growth, you will feel more empowered and it will get you out of that victim position. Don’t expect your ex to change. You focus on changing, and then paradoxically sometimes, if one person changes, the other person changes the dynamic. You can’t go into it with the outcome of, “I’m going to make that person change,” because that’s the unhealthy dynamic. You do you and let them do them.
This is a great podcast. It’s absolutely chock-full of information that everybody needs. Virginia, thank you for joining me.
Thank you. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
I enjoyed this. Once again, the book of Virginia Gilbert is Transcending High-Conflict Divorce: How to Disengage from Your Ex and Find Your Power on Amazon.
You can find me everywhere, www.JenniferHurvitz.com. It’s Jennifer Hurvitz Biz everywhere else on Facebook and Instagram. You can buy my book, Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.: A Divorce Coach’s Guide to Staying Married everywhere you’ll find books. Don’t forget to get your Hurvitz merch, peace, love and truth everywhere. 10% of the proceeds will be going to Isabella Santos Foundation for pediatric cancer research. I’m happy about that. Thanks for joining me. Peace, love and truth.
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About Virginia Gilbert
Virginia Gilbert is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in the treatment of high-conflict divorce. She is also a freelance writer who has written hundreds of articles on divorce and mental health topics.
Gilbert recently published her first book, TRANSCENDING HIGH-CONFLICT DIVORCE: HOW TO DISENGAGE FROM YOUR EX AND FIND YOUR POWER, which is now available on Amazon.
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