Reprinted from "Couples" issue of Visions Journal, 2015, 10 (4), p. 37
As a family therapist, I’ve been working with a growing number of divorcing couples fighting over custody and shared parenting of their children. Typically, a parent comes seeking help because they are worried that the ongoing conflict with their ex-spouse is harming the children.
The parent tells me the children are easily upset and become angry or withdrawn after a visit with the other parent. It may take one to three days for a child to return to normal behaviour. The child will say disturbing things: for example, telling the parent they need to send the support payments, or asking how the support money is being spent. This indicates the other parent is coaching the child to become involved in the conflict and to ally with their side.
The parent will share how simple issues, such as managing the children’s clothes going back and forth between the homes, arranging pick-up and delivery times, or deciding who will attend a school field trip can turn into nasty conflicts. The parent receives a constant barrage of negative, hateful text messages that can start at six a.m. and continue throughout the day. A phone call can turn into a long tirade of blame and lecturing. The conflict is constant, and the parent always feels defensive.
The healthy / ‘normal’ breakup
Communicating with a High-Conflict Person
A high-conflict person will often misunderstand the other parent’s behaviours and believe they’re being attacked, put down or controlled. An example would be:
A parent requests, in a phone conversation, that their son complete his school homework when visiting the other parent on the weekend, because the homework is due on Monday. The high-conflict person mistakenly believes the other parent is trying to control his/her time with the son and snaps back with: “If you wouldn’t let him play his video games all the time, he wouldn’t have to do homework with me.”
The parent becomes defensive (feels under attack, again) and either tries to explain or becomes angry and attacks back, which confirms the high-conflict person’s belief that the other parent is trying to control the visiting time.
The high-conflict person reacts with more anger and a stream of put-downs.
The request to have the homework completed for Monday has now been hijacked into a power struggle. To break this reactive pattern, the parent making the request:
The result should be a phone call that did not spiral into a heated conflict, and you are in control of yourself. This is very difficult to do, but with practise it becomes easier. At the beginning, be very rigid and strict—it’s important there’s no compromise. Rehearsing with a friend or a counsellor can be very helpful.
Most couples experience a high level of conflict and struggle during the first year of separation, and this is quite normal. Most will have numerous heated arguments and live through a time of emotional turmoil of hurt, loss and anger—it’s very painful when the intimate connection ends.
But, over time, the process of grief and loss unfolds, resulting in acceptance. The emotional intensity of anger and hurt changes to a quiet resolve to move on. Both people adapt to the new relationship and are able to put aside past hurts and stop or reduce the fighting. This makes it possible to work out the various issues, including those around shared parenting.
When children are involved, even at the early stages of a breakup, most couples put the children’s emotional well-being first. There is willingness to put aside personal hurts when discussing the children’s needs, and they strive to set up visitation or living conditions that are in the children’s best interests.
The key points are the ability to accept (let go or manage the hurt), settle their differences (stop fighting) and move on (create a new life). If, however, after two years of separation intense conflicts are still occurring and it’s difficult to agree on various issues, something is amiss.
The not-so-healthy breakup
There are a small number of people who do not get over the breakup and remain stuck in anger and resentment. They are unable to take any responsibility for their actions, continuously blame the other person for their difficulties and the marriage breakup, and portray themselves as a victim.
A person acting in this manner may have a mental health condition such as an antisocial or narcissistic or borderline personality disorder. The person with borderline personality disorder often has great difficulty accepting and coping with a marriage breakup. The stress they experience may exaggerate their mental health condition—for example, heightening feelings of threat, inferiority, being ignored or being dominated. To cope, they try to control the other person through blame, threats and continuous conflicts. It’s a very small number of people who struggle with these mental health issues.
There’s another group of people who don’t have a mental health issue, but have deeply entrenched, unhealthy personality traits and beliefs that make it very difficult for them to accept a marriage breakup. Their coping strategy is to use controlling and aggressive behaviours.
High-conflict person—high-conflict situation
In trying to understand people with these traits, I’ve found the work of American lawyer and former counsellor Bill Eddy to be very helpful (see “related resources”). Eddy calls this type of person a high-conflict person.
There are distinct signs of being engaged with a high-conflict person. It starts with one’s own personal experience of constantly defending oneself, feeling powerless and intimidated, and often reacting in anger to the way one is being treated.
A high-conflict person can be recognized by their self-absorbed focus on their own needs and by their inflexible thinking that’s often shaped by distorted reasoning. The high-conflict person will show many of the following characteristics and behaviours:
inflexibility in their thinking and demands
quickly making assumptions and conclusions
quickly making issues personal either by blaming the other or dragging up the past
turning small issues into arguments
petitioning the courts to have their demands met
recruiting advocate such as lawyers, friends and family members to defend their position
dragging the conflict on for years
It can be a very difficult undertaking for a high-conflict person to place the needs of the children first and to reach an agreement with the other parent over guardianship issues. Children can become a major source of conflict.
If you’re in a high-conflict situation
In counselling, I help the person to understand: They are being hooked into a high-conflict-person mode of operation. They cannot change the other person, but they do have a choice in the way they engage and respond. There are ways to limit or shut down the opportunities for the attacks and to take control of one’s response.
Here are some helpful skills to cultivate and apply:
Don’t take it personally. The high-conflict person’s anger, blaming and demands are their personal issue, not yours.
Set up your personal boundary. If you’re not being treated with respect, you have the right to end an abusive phone call or walk away from someone. To be able to set a boundary, it’s important to see the high-conflict person as a separate, distinct person with their own issues and agenda. Try to get in touch with a calm, confident inner place where you know you have the right to be treated with respect.
Don’t give in to their demands or provide support if you disagree. A high-conflict person often has a repertoire of tactics to get what they want. For example: being sad and needy, to evoke pity or guilt; being angry and using threats, to intimidate; or arguing, using logic and/or belittling, to change your position. If you give an inch, they will often take a mile and then some. You don’t have to take on their emotional state, and you have a right to say no to their demands, without feeling guilty or being intimated. You are not responsible for them.
Recognize bullying for what it is and end the conversation. By ending the conversation, one sets clear boundaries about what behaviours are acceptable, and more importantly, are not acceptable.
Self-care is critically important. Seek out support from good friends and family. See a counsellor for advice. Learn about stress and its impact on the nervous system (see Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness talks on YouTube). Do healthy activities such as exercise, eat well and make time for fun and laughter. In general, manage your own emotions, shut down negative discussions quickly and firmly set your boundaries (see sidebar for more detail).
Could you be a high-conflict person?
High Conflict Institute: www.highconflictinstitute.com, and a dedicated website for a program designed by the High Conflict Institute to help potentially high-conflict families that are facing separation and divorce: www.newways4families.com.
If, in reading this article, you have a nagging feeling that you may be a high-conflict person, or if you have a borderline personality diagnosis and recognize that these are some of your behaviours, emotions and thinking patterns, this a sign of your personal awareness. It’s very hopeful when a person can recognize behaviours that cause pain in their own and others’ lives.
A person can strive to change the negative patterns and to strengthen their inner resources of positive emotions and well-being. With time and support, it’s possible. I encourage people who are struggling with these issues to seek out counselling, group supports, friends and family.