We all know people that seem to thrive on pushing everything to the next level. Some people would rather be a big part of the problem than a small part of the solution. If you are going through a divorce, every interaction with your spouse may seem to be a conflict, and you may regard those confrontations as high conflict. (See http://www.custodyevaluationsbook.com for more information about Rose Hubbard’s book, Custody Evaluations: the Private War).
There is a difference between conflict that is normal and relates to the divorce, and someone who has a high conflict personality. You have to have different strategies for dealing with each type of person.
What is a high conflict personality? This is a psychological thinking disorder. Someone with a personal disorder has the following characteristics:
*An enduring pattern of behavior
*The pattern exists from early adulthood
*The pattern is rigid and unchanging
*It leads to significant distress or impairment
*It exists well outside the person’s cultural norms
Someone with a high conflict personality has the following enduring patterns of behavior:
*Chronic feelings of internal distress
*Believes that the cause is external
*Behaves inappropriately to relieve the distress
*The distress continues unrelieved
*Receives negative feedback about behavior, which escalates internal distress, but thinks that something or someone besides themselves is the cause. Lacks insight to recognize own behavior.
The legal system, particularly regarding custody and parenting time issues, is very attractive to someone with a high conflict personality. The conflict gives emotional satisfaction, even though the person may claim that they don’t want the conflict. Having the conflict and pursuing legal action validates who the person is, and convinces them that they must continue to take court action because they are “right”.
High conflict personalities may be very convincing to a judge, who sees someone who is very emotionally intense, and believes very strongly in what they are saying. The judge may only have limited exposure to this person, and does not see the pattern that may take months or even years to develop.
If you have a person who is in a conflict, but not a high conflict personality, if there are appropriate boundaries set, such as a parenting schedule, or the person’s point of view is heard and considered, such a person may be disappointed in the result, but will usually accept the result, adapt and go forward. If a person is a high conflict personality, being told that their behavior or what they want is wrong, doesn’t just set boundaries for that person, it attacks their own sense of self-worth. In order to protect themselves emotionally, they continue to fight the battle, filing motion after motion, or creating conflict after conflict in order to get you to engage in the fight with them.
And the person on the other side? Being on the defensive can often make you look like you are part of the problem, rather than being the target of someone with a personality disorder. Worse, how you react to that person can further trigger their defensive mechanisms, and provoke further attacks.
If you are dealing with a spouse or ex-spouse who has issues with conflict that extend out beyond just the divorce conflict, you need to consider each step along the way if the way you react to that person clearly sets boundaries and avoids unnecessarily triggering their defense mechanism. You can’t change the other person’s personality, all you can do is manage the conflict and minimize its damage on you and on your children.