How Your Amicable Divorce Can Turn Into a Contested Divorce

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No one in their right mind wants to spend years of their lives, and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars fighting a contested divorce. That’s probably why so many people start their divorce believing that it will be amicable.

Unfortunately, within a few weeks or months, many couples who thought they could divorce amicably find themselves locked in battle. They’ve both “lawyered up.” They’re fighting over everything. And they’re so angry with each other they can’t even stand to be in the same room together.

So, what happened?

The answer is probably “a lot of things.”  But, before we talk about the eight reasons that a divorce that starts out being amicable can end up being ugly, it’s important to understand exactly what a contested divorce IS.

Red and blue boxing gloves holding gears steady - make peace

Understanding Contested Divorce 

An “uncontested divorce” is a divorce in which everything is agreed. That seems pretty obvious.

What’s not so obvious is that a “contested divorce” is not simply the opposite of an “uncontested divorce.” Here’s why.

To have an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse must agree on EVERYTHING.

To have a contested divorce, you and your spouse only have to disagree on ONE THING.

That ONE THING creates conflict. That conflict causes anger, resentment and mistrust. Those negative emotions then tend to cause more conflict, which causes more negativity, and on and on it goes.

So disagreeing over one thing can plunge your entire divorce into an ugly, downward spiral. But there’s more to it than that.

Even if you and your spouse continue to only disagree on ONE issue, unless you can resolve that disagreement, you’re going to fight.

Fighting Over Anything = Contested Divorce

Unfortunately, it really is that simple.  Fighting over ANYTHING makes your divorce contested.

Woman with red boxing gloves.

Why Knowing Whether Your Divorce is Likely to be Contested or Amicable Matters

Knowing what kind of divorce you will likely be facing is important for one reason: It allows you to be properly prepared.

If you truly believe that you and your spouse can divorce amicably, that’s awesome! You can probably mediate your divorce and get by with only one of you hiring a lawyer.

But if the reality is that you have about as much of a chance of divorcing amicably as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, then you need to be prepared for a fight.

You don’t need to MAKE a fight. You don’t need to cause a problem, or make your divorce any uglier than it has to be.

However, you DO need to be prepared for a fight in case it happens. For example, if you decide NOT to hire a lawyer, or you hire a lawyer who excels at mediation but not at litigation, and your divorce becomes contested, you’re going to be in a world of hurt.

The challenge of course is that it’s often difficult to know right from the start whether your divorce is likely to be contested or not. You and your spouse can both start off with the best of intentions. Then things take a negative turn, and you end up with a contested divorce that neither one of you anticipated.

That happens.

But there are some telltale signs that will tip you off to the fact that your situation may be more likely to end up in a contested divorce.

Here are eight of biggest reasons an amicable divorce can turn into a contested divorce.

Close up of a gladiator

8 Signs You are Headed for a Contested Divorce

1. Someone Hires a Gladiator

The lawyers you and your spouse choose make a HUGE difference in the way your divorce goes. If either one of you hires a lawyer who is known for fighting, your divorce is not likely to be quick or easy. (Sorry!)

The challenge, though, is that often times you can hire a gladiator without realizing it. (That’s especially true if you found your lawyer on the internet rather than through a personal referral.)

How do you know if you’ve hired a gladiator?

A gladiator lawyer will tell you s/he is going to “fight for your rights.” S/he will talk in terms of helping you “protect” yourself or making sure you “get everything you deserve.”

A gladiator talks in terms of “winning and losing.”  A more reasonable lawyer talks about helping you get through your divorce in the best way possible for you and your family.

That may not sound as satisfying as “winning.” But in divorce, there are no real winners.

 2. You, Your Spouse, or Both of You Can’t Control Your Emotions.

Emotions fuel virtually every divorce battle. People think they are fighting over the house, the kids, the dog, the car, etc.  On the surface, it certainly seems like those are the things you’re fighting over.

Yet, when you dig beneath the surface you usually find that something else is driving the battle. That something is emotion. It’s fear, pain, anger or frustration.

Those negative emotions drive divorce. Yet, it’s not the emotions themselves that are the problem.  Emotions are just emotions. The problem comes when either you or your spouse (or both of you) can’t deal constructively with your emotions.

When one or both of you allow your emotions to control your behavior, THAT’S when your divorce starts to get ugly. That’s when you do stupid things that you end up regretting later.

It’s also worth noting that if your spouse has severe anxiety, depression, or a personality disorder (like narcissism) s/he probably doesn’t have the emotional capacity to control his/her behavior. If that’s the case, then the chances that you will have an amicable divorce decrease dramatically.

3. Your Spouse Wants to See You Suffer!

It’s great to think that two people who were once in love should be able to work out the details of their divorce like civilized humans. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

Revenge is real. It’s especially real in three sets of circumstances:

  • You cheated on your spouse and s/he found out;
  • Your spouse is, and always has been, a mean or vindictive person; or
  • Your spouse has a personality disorder or other mental health issue.

If any of those three statements accurately describes your spouse, your divorce is probably going to end up being contested – at least for a while.

If your spouse is the kind of person who insists on getting his/her “pound of flesh” whenever s/he thinks you did something wrong to him or her, you’re probably in for a rough divorce.

What’s more, it doesn’t matter if you really didn’t do anything wrong at all. If your vengeful spouse THINKS you did, you can kiss your uncontested divorce goodbye.

4. Someone Has Unrealistic Expectations

Unrealistic expectations are one of the biggest causes of contested divorce.

Most people will fight for what they think they’re entitled to get. That’s especially true when they’re already angry and upset (i.e. when they’re going through a divorce.)

The trouble is that many divorcing people don’t actually KNOW what they’re entitled to get. They just ASSUME that they’re entitled to get what they want.

Unfortunately, ignorance does not make for an easy divorce.

While most good divorce lawyers will reality check their clients’ expectations, some lawyers will do the opposite. They pump their clients full of sunshine just to fuel a fight.

In other cases, the lawyers do their best to reign in their clients’ unrealistic expectations. But the client (i.e. either you or your spouse) refuses to believe that the lawyer is telling the truth.

That’s a problem.

Since you’re reading this article, chances are that YOU are not the one whose expectations are out of line. Unfortunately, if your spouse’s are unrealistic that leaves you with one of two choices.

You can sign off on a horribly one-sided, totally unfair divorce settlement. Or you can fight until your spouse reigns in his/her expectations … or until a judge reigns them in for him/her.

Man and woman in a contested divorce arm wrestling at a table.

5. Your Spouse Won’t Engage or Won’t Compromise

You can’t negotiate with someone who won’t even talk to you.

If your spouse refuses to come to the table and talk, your chances of resolving your divorce without a fight are pretty much zero.

Sure, you can have your lawyers negotiate for you. But if your spouse is stubborn enough to not talk with you, the chances that s/he will be reasonable enough to reach a compromise of any kind isn’t great.

(When you add to that the fact that lawyers are trained to “win,” you can see how likely it is that your lawyers can miraculously manage to settle your divorce when you and your spouse can’t even talk with each other.)

Even if your spouse will talk with you, if s/he refuses to compromise on anything, you’ve got a similar problem.

Negotiating with someone whose position is “It’s my way or the highway,” is NOT negotiation.  It’s bullying.

The only way to amicably resolve your divorce with a spouse who insists on being a bully is to give in to your spouse’s terms. But if you’d prefer not to be a human doormat in your divorce, then your only option (unfortunately) is to fight.

6. Your Spouse Insists on Having His/Her Day in Court

It’s hard to understand, but some people really want (or think they want!) their day in court.

Maybe it comes from having watched too many courtroom dramas. But a lot of people think that going to court will be just like on TV. They think that a judge will solve all their problems.

Those people are wrong.

Asking a stranger in a black robe to decide the most important issues in your life is a horrible idea. You have no control over what a judge will decide. Then, once a judge has made his/her decision, you’re stuck with it.

Who wants that?

The truth is that when people want their “day in court” they usually really want two things:         

  • They want to get the chance to tell the judge their story; AND
  • They want the judge to tell their spouse that THEY were right. In other words, they’re looking for emotional justice.
  • What those people don’t understand is that the way that the court system is structured, they will probably NEVER get a chance to tell their story the way they want to tell it. And if the judge happens to tell them that they’re wrong, or tell BOTH parties that they’re wrong (which happens a LOT!), they will feel like the justice system failed them and the judge sucks.

Unfortunately, if the ONLY way your spouse will get divorced is to go in front of a judge, by definition, you’re going to have a contested divorce.

7. Your Spouse is Abusive

Human behavior is consistent. If your spouse has been emotionally, mentally verbally, financially, or physically abusive during your marriage, it’s not likely that s/he is going to stop being abusive while you’re going through a divorce.

You can’t get an amicable divorce from an abusive person. It just doesn’t happen.

While that might be bad news for you if your spouse is abusive, knowing that you’re probably going to end up with a contested divorce is important. That’s because, as human beings, we all believe what we want to believe.

It’s easy to close your eyes to reality when you WANT to believe that you will have an amicable divorce. Doing that, though, will ultimately end up costing you more time, more money, and more pain, than rolling up your sleeves and getting ready for a fight.


Because, like it or not, the best way to avoid a fight with a bully is to be so strong that the bully decides not to fight with you.

If you try to mediate your divorce, if you try to be “nice” and accommodating, an abusive person will read that as weakness. Weakness fuels fights.

If, on the other hand, you stand up to your bully spouse, and your spouse thinks that s/he may lose if s/he fights, you have a much better chance that your spouse will back down and ultimately settle.

8. Your Spouse Doesn’t Want a Divorce. Period.

If your spouse is dead-set against getting divorced (whether it’s for religious or personal reasons) you’re probably in for a fight, at least for a while.

The reason why is simple: The only way to have an uncontested divorce is by agreement. If your spouse won’t agree to anything because s/he doesn’t want a divorce, you’re not going to have an amicable divorce. The only way you’re going to get divorced is if you force the issue.

If you don’t push, your divorce won’t happen.

Of course, the fight you have may be more like a frustrating annoyance rather than an all-out war. You’ll probably be dealing more with behavior that is more passive -aggressive instead of openly hostile. But no matter how you slice or dice it, you’re probably still going to have a contested divorce.

Yellow "Storm Coming" warning sign in front of dark clouds. How to tell your spouse you want a divorce.

What to Do if You’re Facing a Contested Divorce

If you want to have an amicable divorce, but you can see (when you look at your situation realistically) that you’re much more likely to be headed for a contested divorce, what do you do?

First and foremost you have to acknowledge your reality. Just because you may want an uncontested divorce that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be able to have that. Divorce – just like marriage – involves two people. The only one of those two people who you can control is YOU.

While it may seem counterintuitive, the best way to avoid a fight is to be prepared for it.

You don’t need to be unreasonable. You don’t need to pick a fight. But you do need to find a lawyer who is capable of fighting and then prepare yourself as if  you were going to fight.

You don’t have to be paranoid, or presume that your spouse is out to harm you. But, as Ronald Reagan once said, “Trust, but verify.”

Finally, knowing that your divorce may well be contested allows you to adjust your own expectations. That, alone, will help make even your contested divorce a little bit easier.

Head shot of Karen Covy in an Orange jacket smiling at the camera with her hand on her chin.

Karen Covy is a Divorce Coach, Lawyer, Mediator, Author, and Speaker. She coaches high net worth professionals and successful business owners to make hard decisions about their marriage with confidence, and to navigate divorce with dignity.  She speaks and writes about decision-making, divorce, and living life on your terms. To connect with Karen and discover how she can help you, CLICK HERE.


dealing with divorce, divorce blog, divorce process, divorce tips

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  • Thank you for your useful articles. I am in the middle of a very ugly, contested divorce, centring around advocating for our two children with special needs. A friend recently sent me a copy of “Getting to Yes – Negotiating Agreement without Giving In”, by Roger Fisher and William Ury – reading it has been the singularly most useful thing I have done in the two years we have been battling. I feel for the first time I have a plan for how this might resolve without relying on a stranger to work things out, which, of course, is essential because no judge will understand the nuances of parenting my children. I wish I had read it before any of this started, and perhaps we could have settled long ago.

    • I’m glad you like the articles on my divorce blog! I’m sorry to hear that you’re in the middle of an ugly divorce. What’s positive is that at least you have a plan now for how to move forward.

      “Getting to Yes” is an excellent book! I also recommend “Negotiating the Impossible” by Deepak Malhottra. It may be a little bit more detailed than what you need, but it is full of great insight and great stories.

      Good luck.


  • All 8 of these things were true in my divorce, but I didn’t know it at the time. These things are not easy to learn about because intentions are hidden.

      • I’m in process of a contested divorce in a no fault state after just 1.5 yrs of marriage. My husband was sentenced to 14 mo’s incarceration for 2 counts of felony against me. When I asked for an amicable divorce he agreed, but then grew violent & began stalking me. We share no assets or children. So, why is allowed to continue contesting the divorce, draining all my resources & using the system to perpetuate his power tripping & punishing behaviors? I’ve found hundreds of articles detailing the difficulties of divorces contested by narcissists & abusers, but I’ve not found ONE that provides any recourse or hope?! In this day & age of #MeToo, this is quite the throw back law & it is barbaric that the system enables abuser to prolong their victimization. Does it make sense that someone who assaulted me, stalked me, damaged my property & plead guilty, also gets the final say on whether I can leave this marriage? It’s undeniably wrong. What can I do when even his attorney won’t respond to our request to settle?

        • I can hear how frustrated you are. I can totally understand why you would feel that way. Abusers abuse the divorce system the same way they abuse people. Right now, all I can suggest is that you talk to your attorney, and push to go to trial. It sucks that you have to go that route. But going to trial is the only way to end your divorce if your spouse won’t settle.

          … wish I had better news.

          Hang in there.

  • Contested or uncontested…. once lawyers are involved… system makes sure your kids/family in screwed forever….
    There’s no going back ever … regardless of the money or kids involved….
    Most corrupt ingredients of any society makes the integral constituents of divorce courts…
    That’s it..,
    It’s was your fate… so just move on…
    preferably out of the states…. and never ever attend any so called courts or lawyers meetings….

    It’s just crap….

    Group of faithless, money greedy, personals with full back up of corporate systems is going to torture you forever…


    Anything and everything in parenthood or counseling or hearings… are just scam..

    Just move out of states way before anything is written in words … or even after that….

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