GoransonBain Ausley attorney Thomas Greenwald interviews psychologist Sally Fallwell. Sally is a trained psychologist who specializes in mediation and negotiation practices in family law. She works primarily in areas of divorce, infidelity, major life changes, as well as grief and loss. Thomas and Sally discuss the character traits of a high-conflict personality, how to navigate conflict with such a person, and offer advice to help you work towards a healthy resolution of the conflict with someone who falls into the high-conflict distinction.

If anyone would like to contact Sally, you can reach her at legacyacc.com and on Instagram @drsallyfalwell.

Listen on the go: Apple Podcast || Spotify || Google Play

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. Sally is a Dallas native where she knew as early as high school that she was going to be a psychologist. Her training also includes mediation and negotiation.She works with adults in private practice, mainly with those who desire to bravely change their personal legacy. She commonly works in the areas of divorce, infidelity, major life changes, as well as grief and loss. Sally is also a consulting expert, partnering with attorneys to help coach clients through difficult legal experiences. 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: 
Our topic today is high-conflict personalities. When we talk about high-conflict personalities, what does that actually mean?

Sally:
To me, that means that you’re engaging with someone that is really just challenging in all respects. There’s no reason inside of a conversation, it’s really hard to work through something with them. And that type of person usually has difficulty in a lot of their relationships, not just inside family relationships, but their style of interacting with people might show up with their spouse, their kids, at work, how they engage in the community. And they’re really hard to get through too as, like, a functioning partner inside of a conversation or a decision to be made.

Tom: 
So, for instance, we might look at someone’s employment history, and if they have a history of being with an employer for only…you know, every year or so they’re changing employment, and it’s always a result of some conflict at work, is that maybe an indicator you might look at for someone that is a high-conflict personality?

Sally:
Sure, you could, because I could imagine that that person would have a really hard time with authority, and with management, and they might have a hard time managing a team or having someone come back to them with additional ideas about a project or how something might go. They might have a really hard time with mistakes, which we all make mistakes. Mistakes are made inside of family decisions, with kids, with parenting, at work as well.

Tom: 
High-conflict personality, what we’re really talking about is someone that may have difficulty in many aspects of their life, correct?

Sally:
Yes.

Tom: 
And so, if we have a situation that…maybe if someone gets along well at work, they have a lot of close friends, a lot of lasting relationships, but in their marriage, for instance, there’s a lot of conflict. Is that the kind of person you would typically identify as a high-conflict personality or is that maybe more situational?

Sally:
That, to me, would be more situational. Their spouse or maybe other attorney might name them as a high-conflict personality. But something to know about personalities is that we take our personalities wherever we go. So, it’s more unlikely that you would have longstanding problems in only one place with, like, a personality disorder or having a way of interacting. And, in this case, we’re talking about someone who really has trouble coordinating with other individuals.

Tom: 
Would you say that it’s true that when someone has a high-conflict personality that there’s always necessarily a personality disorder behind that?

Sally:
Not necessarily. And high-conflict personality isn’t a diagnosable personality. And sometimes inside of legal situations, none of us have our best come out. And so, you might be inside of, I will say, a divorce case. And that might be a high-conflict divorce, it might be a more simple procedure or process, but you’re still dealing with a challenging relationship. There’s a reason that the divorce is occurring, and those two people might have a hard time systematically in how they interact. And you may not have an actual diagnosable personality disorder, but you might have characteristics coming out that are similar to what someone who has a personality disorder is…usually are symptoms of how they interact with the world around them.

Tom: 
So, what I often hear is someone will come to me and they will say, “My spouse is a narcissist.” And, typically, rarely, has that ever been diagnosed in the situations I’m talking about. So, a client comes to me and says, “I believe my spouse is a narcissist.” Is the fact that someone is just really difficult to get along with in a particular situation, is that an indication that they truly are a narcissist? Is that someone that is a high-conflict personality? What do you see happening in those situations?

Sally:
Well, my experience is that both narcissism and borderline personality disorder are seen a lot in divorce cases. And kinda going back to the point I was making about…well, divorce isn’t gonna bring out anybody’s best qualities, but it’s easier to name someone else as having a really difficult way of interacting and name that as a personality disorder. It’s really hard to get a diagnosed personality disorder. So, my experience has been it is not as important to name that someone has a personality disorder like narcissism, it’s more important to be working with their stable way of interacting with the world that’s problematic that would show up in the divorce case and be able to work as strongly around that as possible.

Tom: 
So, it seems like, in some respects, you talk about someone may have some traits or characteristics of a personality disorder, but may not actually be diagnosed, right?

Sally:
Right.

Tom: 
So, what are some of the traits that a person would look for to determine if they are in a relationship with a high-conflict personality?

Sally:
Similar to what we were saying before of looking at how they interact in multiple respects in areas that…outside of the relationship that they’re in. But that might be really hard to determine because high-conflict personalities can be high on the control side. And so, if you’re looking at someone’s life like that, they may have their life ordered such that it would be really hard to tell if they have trouble in conflict because they might have organized their life where they’re surrounded by people that don’t challenge them. And so, it would be easier to tell if I’m in a relationship with a high-conflict personality…I could tell, but the outside world might have a little bit of trouble because they, in their way of interacting, had so many problems and turned so many people off to interacting with them that they might have fewer relationships or relationships that mirror, “Hey, everything is fine here.”So, if you’re looking for symptoms, you may have a difficult time gathering all the information that you need, but you might be looking for someone that is unable to work in an equal manner inside of making a decision or having a conflict. If you’re working with someone that does not have…even if they have an appreciation for conflict. Because there’s different types of ways that people interact with conflict. And some people avoid conflict, and some people try to have everybody be happy inside of a conflict so they work really hard to calm things down. There are people that really enjoy conflict. And that isn’t always bad because we can get a lot of problems solved when people’s ideas and minds are put together.

Tom: 
So, just because there’s conflict doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing, there can actually be healthy conflict?

Sally:
Yes, there can be.

Tom: 
And it sounds like if you get in a situation where someone always has to be right even in the face of facts to the contrary or contrary to what really is practical or makes sense, that they always have to be right, that would be some indication maybe that someone is just a high-conflict personality and just wants to engage?

Sally:
Yes.

Tom: 
Like, a high-conflict personality, are they getting something from the constant conflict interaction or is it just that they just want their way? Once they get their way, then they’ll back off and move on?

Sally:
Yes, I would guess that they’re getting something out of it because there’s a lot lost inside of always being right. There’s a term called naive realism that is a perspective that is, “I’m always right, but that makes other people always wrong.” And it’s a really difficult thing to arrive and move past naive realism that can be like, “Well, I might be right, but, Tom, you might be right also.” And it’s a little bit hard kind of emotionally to do those mathematics in our head, the emotional mathematics of it. Yeah. So, someone that is always right, they get an energy from the interaction, but they also might be working from the difficulty they have interacting with another person that is based upon insecurities or a real narrow mindset of, “Well, if I’m always right, then I have to protect that.”

Tom: 
So, Sally, if I’m in a relationship and with a high conflict personality and this other person always wants to be right, if I just constantly given and capitulate, give what they want is that in some ways make make me an enabler?

Sally:
Yes, but I prefer thinking about it in that any two people, and in a marriage, especially, we have a, many times spoken, but also many times unspoken, way of interacting. So, it makes sense that someone married to and divorcing a high-conflict individual, that there would be a system of the forcefulness inside of the conflict with protecting, “I’m right, I’m right, I’m right,” and going to all lengths to do that so that the other person finally gives in. And that can be about scheduling things with the kids, it can be about money, it can be about how holidays are run. But the two people have kind of an unspoken way of interacting where one person pushes, and pushes, and pushes, and then the other person, despite good effort, will eventually give up because the stamina of the high-conflict person would just keep going.

Tom: 
What is at the core of someone that always has to be right? Is it insecurity? What’s really behind someone’s need to always be right or prove somebody else wrong?

Sally:
Well, I would go back to, yes, insecurity. And that being said, we’re all insecure in some spaces, and yet, the goal in developing as adults is learning how to emotionally be able to interact in really difficult situations. And that includes being able to notice that another person has a point, or to admit when we’re wrong, or to make an appropriate apology. So, it could be insecurity and it could be not necessarily malice, but, like, not really wanting to give the other person the space or the satisfaction of being right in order to…

Tom: 
Control, maybe?

Sally:
Yeah. So, control, but, like, withholding from another person the space of knowing or being right. I also would go back to the vulnerability part, which it’s really necessary to be vulnerable inside of a relationship, and yet, inside of a divorce, you’re looking at two people who are gonna have a real hard time moving into vulnerability with one another. And a high-conflict personality would have a lot of trouble doing that.

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:
Yes. Thanks, Tom.