Empowered Divorce Summit S1E1- High Conflict Divorce – Host Interview

My experience with divorce conflict and the inspiration behind my mission to change the way we view divorce!

Part I

“Hello, my name is Heather Debreceni, and I will be your host throughout the “Empower Divorce Summit.” I just wanted to take a little bit to introduce myself to you and give you some of my tips on how to work your way through your divorce journey.

I will start by saying this; I am a divorce coach, I am also a former deputy sheriff and victims advocate. I am a wife, and more importantly, I am a mother. I have two wonderful children who are in their teens. They truly have been the driving force in my progression in my life.

Let me just sort of jump back and tell you a little bit about my family history with divorce, my personal history and what lead me on the road to where I am today.

So, I come from a family of divorce. My Mom was divorced, several times, my Grandma as well. I have Aunts and Uncles who are also divorced. So I was no stranger growing up, to divorce. Although that being said,  I was blessed to grow up with having a secure home environment.

But I knew from a very young age that either:

A) I was never going to get married or B) I did not want to get divorced. I always used to say when I was younger that I wanted to have my married name longer than I had my maiden name. That, unfortunately, is not what happened.

So, what happened? I married very young, I was 21, and I thought I knew everything. You really couldn’t tell me much of anything. But what I didn’t know how to do was communicate effectively, or how to stand up for my personal beliefs in a way that was truly being an advocate for myself.

What happened was, I had my marriage to my children’s father. We were married for quite a few years, and things were just rocky, for quite a while. I wouldn’t say on again off again, but we had some turmoil in the relationship. And finally, I made the decision to go ahead and move forward with getting divorced. I did that thinking that by ending the marriage, I was going to be ending all the problems in my life. Not really how things worked out.

So, eventually what ended up happening is our case did become a “high-conflict” divorce. Towards the end, I faced the possibility of losing my children.  Because of that is that, I had to take a long hard look at myself and what I was doing. Because I knew that a life without my children in it, was not a life that I wanted to see. I had to figure out how to stop all the craziness and the chaos. I had to learn what it truly meant to put my children’s best interests first.

I was very fortunate that I had an amazing therapist help me who offered me support. She taught me what it meant to put my kids first. Dr. Christina Hansen was her name.

A little shout out to her because she was amazing, and she helped me figure out how to parent. And how to own up to my responsibility in our divorce craziness. She started me on the road of how to make changes for my kids and how to put their best interest first.

All of this came years down the road. My actual divorce was quick; it was over within a couple of months. But the ongoing custody battle, back and forth, lasted almost nine years.

So it was not a quick, painless process. It was a very long, slow road to get there.

In that time, I got married for the second time, and I married because I didn’t want to be alone anymore. I was looking for someone who would take some of the burdens of being a single parent, and have everything taken off of my shoulders. This realization wasn’t something I was aware of at the time but is something I have come to understand since then.

I felt a lot of shame about that, and I felt immense guilt for having put my children through that and myself. And I never saw myself getting married again; I used to see myself as one of those people that are like “never, ever, ever again!” Again, not really how things happened.

I’ve learned since then, that when you speak in absolutes, you are setting yourself up for failure in things. I took the time to work on myself. In that time I worked with Dr. Hansen. I got myself squared away in my career. And then one day I just realized something, it was just one of those crystal clear epiphany moment. That I don’t know what I was waiting for, was I waiting for someone to come and take care of me…? I had already been taking pretty good care of myself and the kids for quite some time.

Once I made that realization, and I told myself: “I can do this on my own, I got this,” I was pretty determined that I wasn’t going to get married again. I was a strong independent woman. I learned how to advocate for myself, and I learned how to advocate for my children. I learned, and felt “I’m going to be okay, I’m not going to have to worry about getting into a relationship again.”

Then I met someone, and I am currently married to my third husband.

But the foundation of our relationship is completely different than the foundation of my previous relationships. It’s built on mutual support and respect, and we try very hard to not only embrace one another’s individuality but also to support each other in our dreams, goals, and aspirations.

One of the things we did in the very beginning of our relationship when we decided to take it to a more serious level was that above all things we would put my children’s best interests first. So, regardless of what we wanted, if it was not in alignment with what was best for my kids then it just wasn’t going to happen. And he was willing to do that.

Thanks to learning about Dr. Jan Blackstone’s work, which I am very honored to be able to interview her for the summit, we created a sound structure. Her terminology for it is a “Bonus Family Structure.”   

My husband is not a “Step-Parent” he is a “Bonus parent.” He is another loving, caring, nurturing person that is in our children’s lives, as well as, their other “Bonus Parent” that is, their Father’s wife. So, our kids are very fortunate to be surrounded by people who love them, who are here to support them in their lives and make sure they are successful and whole and loved.

So, how many of you listening right now feel like you’re alone in your divorce journey?

Or are struggling to try and figure out what comes next for yourself and your children.

When I say that I know, what you’re feeling, the struggles you’re facing on a daily basis, I mean it because I have been there. I have been through the pain. I have been through the heartbreak. I have been through the financial struggle and the time management struggle.

The guilt of not spending enough time with my children and sometimes not even being able to afford to provide a healthy nutritious meal for them. I have been there. And it’s a long road. And I know sometimes it can be isolating, frustrating, and depressing.

You know, one of the things I’ve learned along the way was that no matter how much you want or need your divorce, it still represents a significant loss in your life. That loss is often equated with a type of death. It’s the death of a family, of a relationship, and ultimately it’s the end of a dream.

Just as you would need support after the passing of a friend or family member, you need support after a divorce. That support needs to help you break that isolation, and help you create a plan for what your next steps are going to be. So that you’re able to embrace this new beginning that you have waiting for you.

My definition of what constitutes a “high conflict” divorce and some common factors 

Part II

What I want to do is talk to you about my specialty and my passion; which is high-conflict divorce. If you are listening and you find yourself either in the middle of and/, or you think you might be facing a high-conflict divorce, I want to make sure I give you some tips that will help you.

So, let’s start by defining what constitutes a “high-conflict divorce.”

A “high-conflict divorce” is one where normally the stakes are very high. One of the parties in this type of divorce is at risk of losing their children.

“High-conflict” cases have a very war-like feel to them. The parties involved often describe it as going into battle. These cases have frequent court appearances. In a typical case, where everything is wonderful, you may never need to go back to court.

What happens in these “high-conflict” cases is that the parties involved are unable to resolve their issues, and the conflict just sort of continues. It escalates and escalates, and what happens is that neither side is willing or able to see the other side’s position. So everything just sorts of keeps mounting from there.

Now, It depends on your jurisdiction, how often, “frequent court appearances” is defined.

But I would say if you feel like in your case you just can’t come to the table and agree on anything and find yourself continually coming back to court because you can’t agree on things. You can’t agree on parenting; you can’t agree on anything, it may qualify as a “high-conflict” case.

So that being said, there are also a couple of other issues that play into a “high-conflict” divorce case. One that seems to be prevalent is that the children end up used as pawns. I will go into that a little bit later on, but, the children become a weapon for the other parents, without a whole lot of regard for the impact that it is having on them.

Also, personality disorders tend to be common in one or both parties who are involved.

It does not mean that it is required, it does not mean that it happens in every case. However, in the truly “high-conflict” cases, you do see that there tends to be a “Narcissistic Personality Disorder,” or “Cluster B Personality Disorder” in general.

When you find yourself in the middle of these “high-conflict” divorces, it can become critical to create a strategic plan, as soon as you realize that’s what is happening. Because, if you don’t take control and create that plan, for how you are going to steer this behemoth that your divorce has become, you’ll end up at the mercy of everyone else. You’re going to be at the mercy of your former spouse, of all the attorneys involved, and in the worst case scenario, and I know this sounds weird saying this, but you’re going to find yourself at the mercy of the court.

At least when you’re dealing with the attorneys and your former spouse, there is a chance that you will be able to reach some form of agreement. That means that you will have some role in determining what happens in your situation. If it gets to the point where the courts are deciding it, you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Because while you may think that you have an adamant case, it’s really up to the judge.

The judge doesn’t have the luxury of taking your feelings into consideration, he or she is really just looking at what the law says is required in your case and what case law supports happening. So that is again, a worst case scenario.

Having said that, if you don’t pick the right support for you and your case like, an attorney, a counselor, a divorce coach, or someone who has experience working in these kinds of cases; you run the risk of paying in more ways than a financial way.

Because what is ultimately at stake is your children. 

In these types of cases, what you are really risking in continuing, without the right support, and without the right tools, is losing your children, and that is a very real possibility, in some of these cases.

Tips for navigating through high conflict communication

Part III

So, if you are listening and realize that you already fall into the category of having a high-conflict divorce or you’re teetering on the edge of having one; What are some things you can do to change your circumstances?

I wanted to give you some of my tried and true tips on how to navigate through this and how to start to change that direction.

The first thing you can do to start creating that change is to modify the way that you communicate with your ex. To change it in a way that will help you protect yourself, while you’re protecting your children.

The first thing that I recommend is, remove any unnecessary contact with your ex unless it has to do with the immediate needs of your kids. Eliminate any “what’s up” texts, conversations, and looking at Facebook posts. That sort of stuff needs to stop.

That doesn’t mean that you’re controlling what your ex is doing. You can’t prevent your former spouse from texting you nor keep them from calling you. But what you can do, is stop interacting with unnecessary communication. So just try and limit the amount of contact that you’re having with your ex. You don’t need to hang out at the same places. Make schedules with your friends, so you make sure you’re spending time with them when it doesn’t conflict with when your former spouse is. 

The next point to consider is if and when things a)get abusive when you communicate with each other or b)even if and when you just can’t agree on anything. In these situations, it’s best to avoid personal contact with your ex. That means, during the phone calls or in person meetings for the exchange of the children.

You don’t have to get out of the car; you don’t have to talk to your former spouse. It doesn’t mean that you ignore them, that doesn’t mean you do antagonistic things when in front of the kids. What that means is (except for infants) the kids can go through the exchange without you having to interact with your former spouse.

Unless it’s absolutely required, just try to avoid it. Any time you speak to one another, you’re opening yourself up to another barrage of possible insults, verbal abuse, or any of those sorts of things.

The next thing you can do is when you do have to communicate with your ex, stick to the facts at hand. Just keep it factual. No talking about the past, just things that need to be addressed right now. What is happening right now and what are the facts about it, not what you’re feeling.

That brings me to the next one, keep emotion out of your communication. Don’t use feeling words, and don’t express opinions. Again, unless it’s absolutely necessary; You don’t have to respond to insults or false accusations.

I always say that not every insult deserves a response.

So if your former spouse’s “thing” (and yes just going to throw this one out there), is calling you a whore, or a bastard, or whatever it is. If that’s their “thing,” you don’t have to answer to that.

If they’re insulting you and saying things like, “You’re a whore, and you’ll date anyone who comes around,” and this happens during your exchange for the children; You don’t have to address that, all you have to address is the exchange for the kids. It takes two to have a fight. If you remove yourself from that struggle, in that interaction, you are creating a better situation for yourself, and you’re eliminating that emotional back, and forth that can happen.

The last truly useful strategy that I have to suggest is to use “I statements.” An example of using an “I statement” would be, “I will be off at 5 pm, and I will meet you at 6 pm at …” (your neutral location to pick up the kids). Notice there are no feeling words in there. It’s very factual; it’s very brief. You don’t have to go into a whole lot of detail. You make your assigned place and just stick with that.

Again, it doesn’t matter what verbal assault is thrown at you at the beginning of the conversation. All you have to worry about is your factual, brief statement, which uses “I” words and “I statements.”

It takes the wind out of the sails when someone is raging, raging, raging, at you and your response is just “Okay, well I will meet you at 6 o’clock at ______ (the neutral location) to pick up the kids.”

It’s a response based solely on facts. And if you can deliver this response in writing, perfect. Because you’re showing that you’re reasonable, are not buying into this behavior, and you are not taking the bait.

Tips for if/when your children become your ex’s instrument to create conflict and dish out abuse

Part IV

The next thing I want to talk about is what can happen when that works, and you eliminate these options for direct abuse, with some of these select individuals, in these “high-conflict” divorces is that they will then use the children.

They will use them to be their voice for their anger and rage at you. Again, this doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does happen, here are some tips for how you can communicate with your child when they are acting as the abusive voice for your ex.

You have now eliminated their ability to abuse you and get a rise out of you directly, and things have now moved onto, “Hey, we’re just going to make sure that little Susie, or Jimmy or, your child becomes this angry rage-filled voice directed towards you.”

The first thing that I want to say is that this takes practice because it is extremely hard.

Especially in our society, we are trained that kids need to be respectful, and they only need to talk to you in a certain way. The reality is that in these sorts of situations, although it is your child’s voice that is speaking, you have to understand that they are just the messenger.

If you had a loving nurturing relationship with your child, and you know you are putting their best interest first, and they are raging at you, it can be emotionally draining. When they start repeating statements that are verbatim what your former spouse has either said to you in person or said to you when you were married; it can be extremely hard.

The first thing, I always tell people is to take a deep breath when your kids are doing that because it can be so painful that it literally takes your breath away.

Take the breath and remember they are just a messenger.

Sometimes your anxiety level will soar, and sometimes your anger can come out because this is your kid, and they’re talking to you like this. So just take that deep breath and remember, even if you have to repeat yourself like a mantra, that “your child is just a messenger.”

Now, you’ve taken that calming breath. You have repeated to yourself that “my child is just a messenger,” you are now going to set a clear and calm boundary about appropriate behavior with your child.

So, while they’re saying all these things to you, again this takes practice, in a quiet voice say, “I love you, but you’re very disrespectful right now, I want to hear what you have to say, but I can’t tolerate you speaking to me this way.

Depending on the scenario, “I will have to”:

a) “leave the room” if this is happening face to face

b) “I am going to have to hang up” if over the phone

c) “stop responding to your texts” if you are texting with your child

Again, you may have to practice this in the mirror with a clear and calm voice. If this is what’s going on, take some time to practice and feel what you’re saying, and practice saying it. Because, that saying that “when parents say things in a calm voice, in a quiet voice, it has more impact” is true.

Because, when you’re yelling, and you’re out of control, as a response to someone who is acting out of control, all you’re doing is escalating the situation. So in a clear and calm voice, “I love you, but you’re very disrespectful right now. I want to hear what you have to say, but I can’t tolerate you speaking to me this way, I will have to end the call.” or “leave the room” depending on what’s appropriate.

Usually, the first time you try this, it is probably is not going to work, we are creatures of habit, and if this type of conversation,  and this kind of a “verbal messenger abuse” is happening in your home, you can’t expect it is going to change overnight. You have to build trust with your child that what you’re saying, is what is going to happen.

If that verbal abuse continues after you’ve already set your clear, calm boundary, then what you could do is you can end the conversation with love.

I am going to describe what that’s like,  it sounds real hard, and it is. We have been programmed that it is disrespectful to hang up on someone, to walk away and to end a conversation. See, there is a way to do it with love that lets your child know you have set a firm boundary and you are sticking to it. But, you still love them.

At that point, if they are continuing on, after you have set that clear, calm boundary and warning is, “I love you, but I won’t continue to allow you to speak to me this way. When you’re ready to talk to me in a more respectful manner, I would love to hear what you have to say, but for now, I’m going to end the conversation.”

So again, practice, practice, practice! “I love you, but I won’t allow you to continue to speak to me this way. When you’re ready to talk to me in a more respectful manner, I would love to hear what you have to say, but for now, I’m going to end the conversation.”

Now, while you’re doing this, your child may continue with their verbal abuse, via texts, phone or with whatever is happening at that moment. Again, we’re talking about verbal abuse, were not talking about physical violence. Then you end the conversation, period.

What that would look like is if you’re on the phone, you will hang up. You are not hanging up on the child, you have told them why we’re ending the conversation, so it’s not the same as if one were screaming, “I can’t stand the way you’re talking to me right now!” Click.

This is, you doing it with love. You have set a clear boundary, and you’re just following through with what you have said you’re going to do.

If it with text, great. The natural thing to do is just to stop responding to the text. And sometimes those texts are pretty hurtful, so, just don’t even look at them at that time. Just turn your phone on vibrate, walk away, leave it in the other room, and just remove yourself from that communication with the text, and eventually, they will stop.

If it’s in person, you can leave the room.

Now, not with small babies of course, but usually you’re not going to face this with an infant. Okay, this is something that happens a lot of times with preteens, and children who are starting to feel like they have to pick sides.

So I’ve given you those tips, those are mine tried and trues. And, I can say that I have never met a match for those. Again, it doesn’t happen overnight; it’s something that takes time. All of these things, every interview that you’re going to hear, all the tips, they all take time. But if you are consistent in applying these techniques and consistent in applying these tips, then you will be successful in what you’re doing. Successful at surviving and surpassing this part of the journey, while protecting your children.

Tips for how to cut through the conflict by becoming a professional co-parenting partner

Part V

The next thing I wanted to finish off with, in addition to these communication strategies; is the next best strategy that you can have towards ending or redirecting a “high-conflict” divorce, and it is to become a “professional co-parent.”

You do this by keeping your contact with your former spouse like you would a business relationship. So, just like you would treat someone in the business world, is how you are going to continue your communication with your former spouse. It’s not personal; it’s business. You discuss the business at hand only, not a whole lot of chit-chat and personal conversation.

If you wouldn’t act that way in a professional setting, then you should not be working that way with your former spouse. If you wouldn’t do it at work, if you wouldn’t act that way with your boss, with a co-worker or a customer,  then you shouldn’t be working that way with your former spouse.

Again, sometimes this is hard. And notice that this has nothing to do with your ex’s behavior. All of these things have to do with your behavior.

You keep it business like; you avoid the personal conversations and attacks. More importantly, and this one can sometimes be pretty hard, you refrain from telling your “co-parenting partner” how to do their job.

You are not the supervisor of all things great and small. There is not one right way to parent. And when you get divorced, you no longer have the right, or the ability to control how the other partner parents.

Now, we’re not talking about severe abuse of the children. We’re talking about just general parenting. So, don’t tell them how to tell the kids how to do their chores. Or what clothes they should be having the kids wear. Or what time bedtime should be?

I mean, in a perfect world, you would be able to communicate with your former partner about these things, you would be able to set up these clear guidelines for what you want to do.

Because it truly is in the best interest of your children in your divorce to be able to have this clean cut line; and that the rules are very similar in both houses. But, if you can’t agree on those things, you need to step back and understand, that the only thing one has control over, is what you do in your home. In my experience, if you do those things, you become that professional “Co-parent”, and can keep things more professional.

The last thing I can suggest that you do that will help you in taking control of this situation is to become an “expert” on your case. Once you do that, once you begin to educate yourself about your case, you save yourself from heartache, a considerable amount of legal time, and a lot of money. And in a “high-conflict” divorce you’re not talking about a couple of hundred dollars spent.

You’re talking about thousands of thousands of dollars that can go to legal fees alone. Ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars, in these cases to attorneys, to court filing fees, to the experts, and that’s what happens, it just continues to progress on and, on and, on.

Really by becoming that expert, you will save yourself from the heartache of that turmoil that can be created in your children’s lives and see the impact of that.

Again, I just have to repeat, my case took nine years, nine years! So yes, again, become an expert on your case, it is one of the best things you can do for yourself, for your children, and for your pocket book. By doing all the things, I outlined; you can learn how and where to best advocate for yourself and your children.

When you cut out all the personal attacks in your communication, and when you get to set effective communication boundaries with your kids, you open the path to becoming a “professional co-parent.” When you become an expert on your case and treat your relationship with your “co-parenting” partners as a professional one; it becomes clear how, where and when you should be advocation for yourself and your children.

All of this helps a lot. And by doing these things, you will eliminate a significant amount of anxiety because you will know what is happening in your case.

You can then avoid some costly mistakes, and you can save yourself from the unanswered “What if” questions later on in life and within your relationships with your children. All the shoulds and the doubts, you know the: “What if I had fought harder?” “What if I had learned how to communicate?” “Did I seriously do what was in the best interest of my children?” Applying all these strategies will help you with that.

Without a doubt, the number one thing that is a requirement when working with me, and you will hear all of the experts talk about (especially in this summit) is always, always, always, put the best interest of your children first. Everything becomes clearer and easier to handle when you do that. And I know that sounds like a given: “Well, of course, I’m going to put the best interest of my children first” But,  that is a tough thing to accomplish in such a personal matter.

Divorce is very personal; it’s adversarial, and unless you do a lot of work on yourself, it can become a very painful process. And sometimes those lines get muddied, about what you are doing,  you may think that you are doing things, to protect your children, but really what you’re trying to do is protect yourself. Protect yourself from that pain and from you know the future issues, or whatever it is.

So just actually taking the time to learn what that means to put your children’s best interest first. To become clearer about your role in things, it will make things so much easier.

I am leaving on a serious note. I do tend to joke around a lot when I am working with my clients, or at least moderately so. I know I have been pretty heavy in this conversation, and in this interview with myself. It is because I take what I do very seriously.

For me, my ultimate goal is to help a generation of children who are facing the highest statistic for “high-conflict” divorce thus far.

Because although, in our nation, the statistics for divorce are actually lowering, and we’re not seeing as many divorces as maybe ten years ago. What is on the rise is “high-conflict” divorce, because communication skills are breaking down.

I think that divorce has become this romanticized thing. That you can villainize your former spouse in your divorce and sometimes that can feel exquisite, but what ends up happening is that your children will end up paying the price for that. So I do take that very seriously.

It has been enjoyable experience creating this summit and interviewing all these amazing experts. Every time I would do an interview I would get so, so, so, excited because of all the great information they provide. I want to thank you for you taking the first step to changing your situation by deciding to participate in this summit and I hope that you have a beautiful, fantastic and grateful day. Thank you.” -Heather Debreceni

Schedule your complimentary 30 minute Chaos To Calm Power Session with Heather today!

Host Heather Debreceni’s Interview Transcripts

NOTE:  Transcripts may be edited for clarity.  This blog post is a transcript or written version of the interview.  It is not an admissible testimony nor is it intended to provide legal or psychological advice.


This or any advice that has been given by Heather Debreceni is not meant to replace or superseded the advice of your attorney or the acting family therapist involved in your case and does not constitute legal or psychological counseling.
About The Author

Heather Debreceni

In 2004, after getting a job in Law Enforcement, Heather left her husband and started the divorce process. Like many mothers in her situation, she naively thought that getting divorced would be the end of the chaos that her failing marriage had created in her and her children’s lives. She now uses her divorce experience to create strategic divorce coaching programs which help mothers turn the chaos of divorce into confident, calm and respect filled lives. Heather is the Founder and Host of the Empowered Divorce Summit which empowers individuals as they navigate through the divorce process. Now a podcast, it provides listeners with access to insightful interviews with experts on divorce, relationships and parenting. She is also an Ordained Non-Denomination Christian Reverend as well as a student of the Buddhist & First Nationals faith and spirituality. Heather supports her clients as they walk through the spiritual rebirth that occurs for many women after divorce. Heather also tours around the country with her family giving talks about Divorce, Ethics, Parenting, Personal Responsibility, Spirituality and Women's Empowerment as well as teaching about Leadership, Business and Entrepreneurship.


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