Dealing with high conflict personalities during divorce can be challenging without the right strategy. Goranson Bain Ausley Partner Tom Greenwald explains what a high conflict personality is and offers advice to help you work towards a healthy resolution of the conflict with someone who falls into the high-conflict distinction.
My name is Tom Greenwald, I’m a partner with Goranson Bain Ausley and I’m Board Certified in family law. Well, high conflict divorce, first of all, typically involves someone with a high conflict personality and it also, they’re cases that involve anger. Maybe the spouse on the other side is planning to get even, there’s a sense of maybe wanting some revenge, there’s often a lack of trust.
What is a high conflict personality?
High conflict personality often involves certain aspects of mental health. It may be that people are not necessarily diagnosed, but we see things we see traits of narcissistic personality, antisocial personality, could be bipolar, could be borderline. A number of those types of traits in mental health involve a high conflict personality. When we talk about high conflict personalities in divorce, we typically talk about someone that wants to be in control, someone that has preoccupation with blaming others, someone that has very “all or nothing” thinking something sometimes referred to as “black and white thinking,” a lot of rigidity someone that lacks emotional regulation, and someone that lacks empathy.
The one thing that we recognize is that although someone has not necessarily been diagnosed with a personality disorder, they may still have significant traits of a disorder. The other thing that we often see is that these people can be incredibly charming, very believable, very manipulative. And in so it makes it difficult sometimes to really recognize and appreciate the type of personality that you’re dealing with. So, a narcissistic personality is someone that has a sense of superiority, sometimes referred to as “the smartest person in the room.” The second type is a borderline personality, that’s someone that has very intense blame and anger. We have histrionic personality, which is someone that is often referred to as a “drama queen,” “drama king,” and it may be a situation where there’s always an emergency. And you know, typically it may be a life-threatening type of emergency. Next is paranoid personality, that is someone that lacks trust and someone that doesn’t often trust the other side, doesn’t trust the other side’s lawyer, and sometimes doesn’t even trust their own lawyer, makes it very difficult to sell cases with a paranoid personality. And the fifth type is an antisocial personality, someone that has no conscience, someone that will manipulate, and it also is someone that will lie, not tell the truth, tell half-truths if it’s in their own self-interest.
How do you deal with a high conflict personality in divorce?
The most important thing in dealing with the high conflict personality and divorce is recognize the type of personality that you’re dealing with, you have to recognize that you’re dealing with a high conflict personality. The other thing you need to do in dealing with a high conflict personality is be on your guard. When problems do arise, validate the person and not the problem. And what we mean by that is, you may say to someone “I understand how you feel,” “I understand how that made you feel,” without acknowledging or validating the actual problem or the complaint itself.
It’s often helpful to use statements such as “we” rather than “I” or “you” for the purpose of inclusivity and including them in the process. High conflict personalities, often used threats or insults is a form of manipulation and if you don’t respond, then they don’t have anything to de-escalate the situation. They don’t have a way to make the problem worse, if you just understand that there are going to be insulted, that there are going to be threats made, just ignore them and move on and focus on resolving the case.
Another important aspect of dealing with high conflict personality is not being so focused on proving the other side wrong in a case. In fact, for instance, there’s a statement that says “narcissists don’t learn from their mistakes, because they never make mistakes.” And that’s this the situation that you find yourself in is if you focus so much on who’s right versus who’s wrong, it takes the focus and the energy and the time and effort off the real issue which is helping you get divorced and helping you get through an amicable and efficient divorce. Another important part of dealing with high conflict personality is recognizing when someone’s being triggered. What I mean by that is when you feel your heartbeat going up, your blood pressure rising, that’s the time to be willing to take a step back and say to the other person: this is not a good time for us to continue this conversation, I’m available later today, I’m available tomorrow and let’s talk then.
If you see that the other side is triggered, and that they are in a place or a space where they’re not able to make a rational decision, it’s okay to step in and say “hey, you know what, this isn’t a good time for us to continue this conversation and let’s go ahead and take a step back and let’s talk later today, let’s talk tomorrow and work through the issue.” That doesn’t mean that the other side is going to suddenly say, “oh, okay, let’s do that.” They’re going to push back on you and they’re going to want to continue the conversation. And they’re going to want to continue to engage, and they’re going to make threats, and they’re going to insult you, but just be willing to take a step back and when that happens, just physically remove yourself from the conversation. And if you’re in the same room with them, leave the room, your same house with them, then you may have to get in the car and leave the house to let somebody cool off. If it’s a phone call, you may have to end the call. If it’s a text message exchange, just don’t respond. You just say, “you know what, this is not productive at this point. Let’s go ahead and take a step back and I’ll follow up with you a little bit later.”
What is the best option to settle a high conflict personality case?
The best option typically is to try and settle your case without going to court. And why is that? Well, the reason is that going to court is expensive, it takes the decision making control or decision making power out of your hands, and also what you’ll find is that -what I found in in almost 30 years of practicing law- is going to court rarely gets a much different result than settling would. The only difference is it costs a lot more emotionally, and it costs a lot more financially. So, once your case is over, it’s important that you do not engage with your ex-spouse, and there will be opportunities where they will want to engage with you. They want to continue that conflict, but if you don’t engage with them, if you’re willing to walk away, then they will take their frustration and their anger someplace else and they will look to other people to feed their ego and defeat their self-worth through the conflict that they create.
The one thing you want to do to try and get your case settled, especially when you’re dealing with a high conflict personality, is hiring a seasoned attorney and then a seasoned team that understands what you’re dealing with, so they can help you navigate the high conflict personality and to navigate a high conflict divorce that is critically important. At Goranson Bain, our focus is on doing the very best we can for our clients, doing it efficiently, doing it amicably, and doing it professionally.
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