GoransonBain Ausley partner, Thomas Greenwald, sits down again with Sally Falwell for a second discussion on managing a divorce with a high-conflict personality individual. During their conversation, Thomas and Sally delve into what it takes to deal with a relationship with such a person. Sally recommends internal and personal work for clients towards creating and enforcing boundaries while also acknowledging that your high-conflict spouse will most likely cross those boundaries. To be ready for this, clients are advised to lean on both mental health professionals as well as a personal support system. Thomas and Sally lay out a guide for people on how to make a decision on whether divorce is right for them or trying to stay the course with their high-conflict partner safely and with reasonable expectations.

Sally Fallwell, a trained psychologist who specializes in mediation and negotiation practices in family law. If anyone would like to contact Sally, you can reach her at legacyacc.com and on Instagram @drsallyfalwell.

For additional tips, please visit: 5 Tips for Dealing with High Conflict Personalities During Divorce.

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Transcript

Tom: 
This is the Family Law Advisor Podcast. I’m Tom Greenwald. I’m a partner with the law firm of GoransonBain Ausley. I’ve been Board Certified in family law. The purpose of the Family Law Advisor Podcast is to provide practical advice and information regarding family law matters. Our guest today is Dr. Sally Falwell. I know Sally personally, I can tell you from experience that her energy and her attentiveness sets her apart. Sally, welcome to The Family Law Advisor Podcast. We’re so glad to have you today.

Sally:
Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Tom: 
If someone finds themselves in a relationship with a high conflict personality, what are some of the things they can do to try and manage that relationship?

Sally:
One thing I would suggest is that there’s a lot, I’m going to suggest a couple of things, but there’s a lot to be done inside of who we are as people to be the best in conflict that we can be. And so your example of giving in, and that being a style that might be my style of being in conflict, well, I have a place to grow in that area of my life. Because then if I’m getting divorced, I need to not bring that into our divorce proceedings and how we’re deciding things because then, I lose out on things that are important to me by just giving in underneath the pressure of what my soon to be ex-spouse would be putting on the table. So what I recommend is a lot of internal and personal work to grow inside the vulnerability, the strength to stand clearly and keep your boundaries. A lot of people have trouble making boundaries with someone that has a high conflict personality because as I was mentioning, they just press and press to be right and to your point, they can’t be wrong. And so it’s really hard to set boundaries. Sometimes we have trouble doing that in our families and within relationships and we just say yes to move out of the discomfort, so.

Tom: 
So if you set the boundary and the high conflict personality violates the boundary, then what do you do?

Sally:
Or are you working with your attorney at this point or not?

Tom: 
Just in a relationship.

Sally:
In a relationship, right?

Tom: 
Right.

Sally:
So the hard part about a boundary is that you don’t necessarily have the other person’s buy-in. And most likely, the high, excuse me, high conflict individual would violate the boundary because it’s out of when you respect someone else’s boundary, you’re respecting them as a person. And underneath that, you’re acknowledging that they have the right to organize the space, their space, their life, their schedule, the way that they deem appropriate. So if someone moves past a boundary, it’s still my job to reassert the boundary and not just give in. So I might have to really practice putting that boundary and working it over and over again. Because it’s not going to go well or go correctly, there’s a little bit of a trial and error with boundaries and that trial and error is a lot different than giving in.

Tom: 
And what I try to do with my clients is I encourage them to set boundaries, I encourage them to let the high conflict personality know at advance what the expectations are, and also to lay out what the consequence will be. Do you find that that’s a helpful way of at least trying to manage that high conflict personality?

Sally:
It can be. I still think you run the risk of the person…

Tom: 
They’re gonna push back.

Sally:
…ignoring…

Tom: 
Yeah.

Sally:
…ignoring or pushing back because you can, in some sense, like well, your…all well and good what your boundary is and all well and good that you told them ahead of time and all well and good that there’s a consequence yet they can still push back and ignore it. And so it still is my job to do right by the boundary I’m setting because I think you make a great point of it doesn’t really help the situation if I make a boundary and don’t speak about it. And then all of a sudden throw out a consequence. But I also have to be healthy in my response and not use any manipulation back. So let’s say that there were kids involved, like my consequence doesn’t need to involve withholding whatever the agreement is about kids or visitation because then I escalate the problem. So all that to say is, yes, there’s pushback, there’s ignoring and that’s why I asked about working with your attorney because a lot of times the attorneys can work together to kind of help set the boundaries and keep those in place where it’s not the divorcing individuals who are having a difficult time interacting anyway to be the ones working together to try because you may not be able to work together.

Tom: 
It’s these two different dynamics, right? When you’re involved in litigation, you have the leverage if that’s the right term, of contacting your lawyer and creating your consequence of taking somebody to court, right. And that’s kind of artificial because that only lasts in the vacuum of litigation. Outside of litigation, then the question becomes, you know, how do you set the boundary? How do you set a consequence? How do you set an expectation that are meaningful? And what I’m thinking about is, for instance, let’s say you have a husband and wife and the husband bullies the wife through texts and sends inappropriate texts, uses inappropriate language. And wife might say, “You know, that is not okay for someone to treat me that way. Nobody on the face of this earth treats me the way you do, okay?” So the boundary is going to be that when you send me a text message with foul language, or that is disrespectful to me, I’m not going to respond to it. Is that not just a way to try and manage that relationship?

Sally:
And that’s a really great boundary because the wife has an ability to… she doesn’t have to text back ever. And she can also keep a record of the interactions. The husband might push back and in your example with, “Well, I’m going to continue to text,” but he can’t make her respond. So kind of speaking to what I was saying is she has to do what she needs to to keep that boundary in place. I would go a little bit further and take texting off the table of like, if you’re going to interact with me, it’s going to be on something like Family Wizard or something that is…

Tom: 
Well, it’s outside litigation.

Tom:
Yeah. Because we know in litigation we’ve got a lot of other options that…but again, they exist in a vacuum and that once people are outside of that vacuum, I’m trying to come up with ideas or thoughts of how somebody can manage a relationship outside of litigation.

Sally:
So yes, I think I won’t respond to texts like that is just fine. But when you’re setting a boundary, you have to look at what the pushback could be. If like, well, if you’re not gonna interact by text that makes interacting in other ways possible like a phone call. Well, do you want to get on the phone with that person and how to work with well, if you take texting off the table, then what are you going to do because you can’t just not communicate with that person. So it could be that if this is the type of text that you send, then I don’t respond, but inside of cordial and respectful, I will.

Tom: 
Right. What about the situation…what I’ve seen is that if someone’s in a relationship with a high conflict personality, and they set their boundaries, they set the expectations and they also set the consequences that when they implement a consequence, for example, the consequence is going to be I’m not going to respond, right. And when they don’t respond, then what I typically see is what that person has to be ready for is the high conflict personality is part of the manipulation they engage in and control is they escalate the emotional situation. Is that something that you’ve seen?

Sally:
Yes. And I think that that’s something to be ready for. Because if you’re in a relationship with a high conflict individual, you’re not going to change them, you’re not going to change their behavior. If you take a high conflict personality and you put them in a situation with boundaries, they are going to react and react can include escalate. So in a text situation, you might get like a firestorm of texts, then you might get a firestorm of phone calls because you’ve poked on that thing in them that can’t be wrong. And so they will press and press and press to interact with the person to try to get them to agree or capitulate or like in that sort of solves the thing for the high conflict person. They don’t have a really good stop button all the time.

Tom: 
And it’s difficult in those moments once it’s escalated to not respond but the thing to do is to not respond. And what I’ve also found is what typically happens, not always, but what typically happens is eventually, the high conflict personality will realize they’re not going to respond. “I’m not going to get what I want from this,” and they will either try another tactic or they will go someplace else with their issues. But that takes us to the next question, this is a minefield, right? And if I’m not in a litigation process, I don’t have the legal system to rely upon, I got to manage this myself. It seems to me when I encourage my clients to do even before they file for divorce, is to engage the assistance of a mental health professional to help them manage this. Because what I’ve found is that high conflict personalities are not typically very interested in engaging in family therapy, or marriage therapy. Or if they do, they only do it for a short period of time and then it’s…what my sense is that they don’t like what they’re hearing in marriage counseling or in family therapy, and they say, “That therapist doesn’t know what they’re talking about. They got it all wrong. I’m not going back.” So let’s assume for a minute that marriage therapy, family therapy is not an option. What can a therapist do to work directly with somebody that finds themselves in a relationship with a high conflict personality?

Sally:
There’s two ways to engage a mental health professional. One is through therapy. And it’s often recommended that people go through therapy inside of a divorce. Some choose to do that, some choose not. There’s a difficulty in that because the mental health professional can then become part of the divorce proceedings and get their therapy…like the notes get called in. And so many mental health professionals, they don’t want to have that happen so they will say no to seeing a client that’s going through a divorce or have some outline that here’s what happens if I do get involved. The difficulty is, is as soon as they’re involved in the process, it compromises the integrity of the therapy.

That being said, I still, I mean and remember who you’re talking to, I’m a psychologist, so I would say the benefits of therapy are profound. I mean, there’s a lot that working with a mental health professional can do for someone that is in a long-standing legal just difficulty that kind of starts and stops depending on what’s going on with the schedule. So inside of therapy, there’s a lot of working through the, first I would say the death of a dream. Like people usually get married thinking that they will stay married. And so the dissolution of the marriage becomes like an emotional adjustment of like, “How did we get here? I can’t believe I’m at this point. I have to start all over.” They’re restructuring their futures and there’s a real heaviness and a grief to the life change that a divorce brings on. That’s wonderful material for therapy. It’s also important to remember that any of the emotional aspects going on in a person, they bring that into whatever’s going on inside of the divorce. So that would…if I’m going through a divorce then I bring all of that grief with me to the interactions with my spouse, so that might mean that because I’m struggling so much with the end of our marriage, I would continue my way of interacting with him in that system and continue to give in because I would hold out some hope of like, “He’s not that bad. I mean, it can’t be like this,” and yet I’m contributing to the problem. So I’m better off working through that grief inside of therapy, not to mention… So there’s grief, there’s a ton of anger, there’s a ton of disrespect inside of divorce.

There’s so much going on that is worthwhile to be processing and not processing with your attorney. Your attorney has a certain job. And many attorneys have gotten really good at handling the emotionality of a divorce, but then you begin paying your attorney or you’re engaging someone that is not necessarily skilled at working and handling and holding all of those emotions, not to mention kind of making a plan with how do we work with that. So I would say, I’m all for therapy in that respect.

The second way that you can engage a mental health professional, it’s something that I do, I’m a consulting expert and connect with attorneys. So I partner with attorneys and I serve as a coach for clients working through like a divorce or working through an estate issue that there’s a lot of emotionality to this situation or preparing for a mediation. And when I work with a client like that, it’s very goal-oriented. It’s not the processing of the anger or the processing of the grief. There’s a beginning and an end and I’m here to support and coach you through that. So that would mean that there’s a lot of structure and scheduling around whether there’s an upcoming meeting or there’s an upcoming mediation, and will you be in the room with that person and knowing the triggers and how I specifically get triggered around my soon to be ex-spouse and I’m needing to make specific plans around how do I handle that day? Who is my support system? How do I get ready? And then how do I decompress? When is my appointment with my therapist? And that’s all around the goal of having for that individual the very best divorce that they can if that makes sense.

Tom: 
What about someone that says, “I want to try and manage this relationship. I don’t want to get a divorce. And my spouse will not go to marriage counseling or family therapy with me.” How can a therapist help someone in that situation? Because what I find here is well, how is going with therapists and talking to them gonna help me in my relationship with the high conflict personality? What would you say to that person?

Sally:
I would say, and this is the way that I work with clients is that, well, our goal is not necessarily to help you work better with this certain individual or any other individual, we might highlight that as an area that is of importance to you. But my goal as that professional is helping that person work within who they are.

So in the situation you described, well…because it’s not up to me to judge or to name, yes, stay in the marriage or, no, stay in the marriage. That’s the client’s decision and responsibility. But what they bring in the door might be repeated issues and repeated relational damage and emotional damage and they’re offset. And you want to be in this relationship but you’re kind of not in a relationship with a person who’s making a coordinated effort. And so they would have…and they might… Like it’s amazing, Tom, like we all, not just people divorcing but like, we do things that are not good for us for a long, long time until the absolute last when I’m not going to feel this way anymore, I’m not going to do this way anymore. And that can be with relationships that we’re in, it can be what we eat, it can be the job that we have, all kinds of things. But man, we put in a ton of time and energy into something that isn’t necessarily giving back to us or serving our happiness or our well-being.

And so I would be working with that client in the way of, okay, they might want to at that time stay in the marriage and helping them be the best that they can be whether it’s in the marriage or in friendships, because the healthier that we get emotionally, the more intolerant we get of lack of health. And so someone else bringing in their problems like the maybe the spouse stays difficult or they keep engaging in high conflict behavior, the healthier that my client is getting, the more trouble that they’re going to have with that relationship. And so I would say two things would happen at that point, they eventually move past the commitment to, “Well, I’m gonna stay in. This is what I said I’d do. I committed to it. I don’t want the marriage to end. It’s possible that things could get better,” and that they would eventually kind of peter out there sessions or we would have a discussion of like, “This isn’t really working for you. I don’t sense that you’re really getting what you want to or what you can out of therapy.” And that would be the incongruence of like mental health professional and the person staying committed to their goal of being in the relationship. So that’s one thing that would happen and they might find a different mental health professional that serves that goal in a real different way that like, okay, well let’s make it where you can stay in the relationship. And so I would…the therapeutic relationship would probably change and just kind of peter out or we’d have a discussion and they would probably see someone else or stop therapy altogether.

The other thing that would happen is because when we get healthy, we feel good. And I don’t mean to be Captain Obvious about that but…and it’s a good feeling but it’s a really hard one. There’s a lot of emotional expense to getting healthy because it means setting those boundaries and sticking by them and that might be the hardest thing I do on a given day because I have such a history of engaging with my spouse in a certain way. So it is really hard to get emotionally healthy. And yet, the more I do it, the better I feel about myself and about my ability to make decisions for my life, for what type of person I want to be, and the marriage that I want and do I have that? And if I don’t, and I have kind of that my partner sort of a nonplayer in it, then I have a really hard decision to make. And I would likely continue getting healthier, keep getting better and better at making those hard decisions, putting those boundaries in place and something will eventually probably lead to a change in that relationship, possibly a divorce.

Tom: 
So just in closing, I mean, ultimately, what I know you want for your patients is for them to be emotionally healthy. And it sounds like if someone is in a relationship with a high conflict personality, they’re going to have a lot of work to do but through working with the right therapist, that they can find happiness again. Would you agree with that?

Sally:
Yes. And I think that that’s…you bring up a great point because we all have a lot of really difficult things happen in our lives that can get us discouraged about the future and that can be a health diagnosis, it can be the loss of someone that we loved, and it can be divorce. And yet one of the things that a mental health professional can do is help to engage the thought process about the future because there can be a lot of focus on the present and the now and what deal am I making? What am I getting out of it? And kind of a real now part of it. And yet we have to be present to our future too. Like if I put all my time and energy into my divorce that’s occurring now, I will bring kind of a dilapidated Sally into my future and it will take me a lot of time. It takes a lot of time to heal from divorce anyway. But if I start thinking about my future way early on, then I already am engaging in my own well-being and the potential for happiness after this really difficult situation has occurred.

Tom: 
Sally, thank you again for being here. We’ve enjoyed our conversation today. And if anyone would like to contact Sally, you can reach her at legacyacc.com. That’s L-E-G-A-C-Y-A-C-C.com. And on Instagram @drsallyfalwell. That’s @D-R-S-A-L-L-Y-F-A-L-W-E-L-L. Thanks again, Sally.

Sally:
Thanks, Tom.