Skip to Content

Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths and Other High Conflict Personalities and How to Divorce Them

arguing couple

Obviously, the best scenario would be avoiding high conflict personalities from the beginning. Certainly there is lots of literature about how to recognize high conflict personalities and avoid building trusting relationships with them. But, what if you have made a mistake and now need to get away from such a person? Having a lawyer, therapist and other professionals on board who are familiar with the high conflict personality person you are dealing with- and trying to get away from- if often a crucial component of success. A high conflict person can steal your joy and peace for many years and making the decision to get away from him or her and being empowered to take the steps necessary to move forward is often crucial to your success in being able to leave the person who will otherwise ruin your life. You need a lawyer who has a specific, intentional, straightforward approach to understanding, identifying and being prepared to defusing high conflict behavior. One of the biggest concerns in litigation and in life, in dealing with high conflict people is setting boundaries, along with being able to communicate limits, protecting yourself while showing compassion and respect.

Often clients who have lived with and dealt with a high conflict personality person spend years being a target of their spouse or partner’s blame. They need tools and strategies to protect themselves as they work on the process of uncoupling from their partner in an intentional and appropriate way. Clients also often feel that the high conflict person they are living with has done a good job, if not an outstanding job, of disguising their behavior to the outside world. They are often professionals, well-respected, with good jobs, educated and very like-able to the outside world.

What are the typical traits of high conflict personality disordered people?

Most commonly, they have diagnosed- or undiagnosed borderline, narcissistic, paranoid, antisocial or histrionic personality disorder. All of these personality disorders are characterized in various ways with lashing out in extremes of emotion and aggression. When you are the target of a high conflict personality disordered person’s aggression, it requires empathy focused conflict management and resolution techniques. The failure to learn to deal with a high conflict person can damage or destroy your finances, physical or mental health. Obviously, one of the best ways to address high conflict people such as these is to get out of a relationship with them. If you have not had children with a high conflict person and you are already seeing troubling warning signs, engage in the counseling and obtain the professional and legal help you need to get out of the situation so that you do not spend a significant portion of your life struggling to co-parent with a high conflict personality disordered person.

A common character trait of high conflict personality disordered people is that they frequently “up their ante” in terms of their behavior, with ever-increasing poor or negative behavior. They will at their worst, turn minor disagreements into what can begin to feel like a relentless war. Essentially, people with high conflict personalities, although they may have different mental health or personality diagnoses, all suffer from a similar pattern of behaviors including: an inability to have successful interpersonal relationships, a lack of social awareness/ability to confirm to social norms, and a lack of ability to see and recognize and ultimately, make changes. Often people with high conflict personalities engage in a similar pattern of behaviors including all-or-nothing thinking, intense and unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors, threats or ultimatums and a preoccupation with blaming others or seeing one or more others as the focus of all of their problems in their life.

High conflict people will perceive a confrontation with them- calling them a high conflict personality or pointing out a pattern of behavior traits as an affront to their very life. This can often result in them spending excessive energy over a period of years trying to make the person calling them out a target of their actions and activities, all in an effort to seek “justice”, “revenge” or “fairness” (according to their perception or viewpoint).

How Should You Deal with a Co-Parent or Other Person who is High Conflict?

There are a variety of tools and strategies that have been analyzed. There are many good books, including several written by Bill Eddy that may be helpful to review if you anticipate going through a child custody or other litigation with a high conflict person. For example, he teaches people to focus on an approach of EAR: empathy, attention and respect. However, at its core, if you are able to express empathy where possible, analyze alternative options, respond factually to misinformation when provided and set limits on the person with high conflict behavior, you will succeed and thrive in litigation with a high conflict person in a way that would not otherwise be possible, when you lack a game plan for proactively addressing such a person’s behavior. Essentially, becoming educated in defusing a high conflict person’s go to behaviors will allow you to feel less of a “victim” to their rapidly changing behavior and actions and more capable of approaching difficult situations with a high conflict person with a strategy and proactive solutions. Another helpful focus is with the acronym BIFF: it gives guidance for how to interact with high conflict people- through being brief, informative, friendly and firm (i.e. setting clear boundaries). This certainly allows for empathy and kindness, but done in an intentional way to also be clear about the boundaries set.

If you are not intentional to combat and address the high conflict person, what can happen?

In many families, high conflict personality persons, when not dealt with, can create extreme divisiveness and division in families. They can make children feel that they are either “on their team” or their ultimate enemy or arch-rival, which is obviously, not a fair position to place children in. A high conflict parent, when left unchecked, can begin to express to the children that the other parent is stupid, is a loser, that the divorce is all the other parent’s fault and quite frankly, that any change or problem in the child’s life is the creation of the other parent. When these types of negative sentiments and comments are expressed so frequently and regularly, the children will start to believe them as their own ideas. In a high conflict parent’s bid for loyalty, in many situations, the parent will start to convince the children to “team up” with the parent and avoid, resist or minimize contact with the other “bad” parent. This often results in extended family, friends and even older siblings feeling divided loyalty and the need to take a side in the process. At its worst, cases of parental alienation develop.

By recognizing the patterns of behavior in high conflict individuals and especially, working with professionals who are knowledgeable about the behavior and willing to work swiftly and directly to confront these types of behavior concerns, often the entire future of the family will have a better outcome that comes with knowledge, education and the experience of addressing high conflict people. If we can help you and your family, please call Pingel Family Law today for a consultation at (816) 208-8130 or send us a message so we can discuss the high conflict issues confronting your family and develop a plan to address your concerns!