Beyond the Drama: Understanding High-Conflict Personalities in Family Law

By Mat Wirove, Alberta Senior Family Lawyer

Navigating interpersonal relationships in the midst of a family law dispute can be incredibly frustrating and challenging, especially if the opposing party exhibits high-conflict behaviours. Bill Eddy, a renowned expert in conflict resolution and co-founder of the High Conflict Institute, has extensively studied and written about high-conflict personalities, offering valuable insights to help people understand and manage these complex personality types. In this blog, we'll explore Eddy's insights to gain a deeper understanding of high-conflict people, their traits and behaviours, and how this knowledge can help to formulate an effective legal strategy for your family law case. It is important to remember, however, that exhibiting high-conflict behaviours does not definitively categorize someone as having a high-conflict personality. With a careful and informed approach, this understanding can lead to more productive resolutions in family law matters, benefitting all parties involved.

High-Conflict Personality Types

Individuals with high-conflict personalities can be placed into four main types:
Borderline personalities (“BPs”) are characterized by:
  • intense and unstable relationships'
  • fear of abandonment, which can lead to clinginess and emotional volatility'
  • black-and-white thinking, where individuals view others as either all good or all bad,
  • and, a tendency to engage in impulsive and self-destructive behaviours.
Narcissistic personalities (“NPs”) are characterized by: 
  • an exaggerated sense of self-importance and entitlement,
  • lack of empathy for others, coupled with a constant need for admiration,
  • fragile self-esteem that is easily wounded, leading to aggressive or defensive behaviours,
  • and, a tendency to manipulate and exploit others to achieve personal goals.
Antisocial personalities (“APs”) are characterized by: 
  • a disregard for the rights and feelings of others,
  • a history of engaging in criminal or unethical behaviour without remorse,
  • deceptive and manipulative tendencies for personal gain,
  • and, impulsivity and a lack of long-term planning.
Histrionic personalities (“HPs”) are characterized by: 
  • a constant need for attention and approval,
  • overly dramatic and emotional, often exhibiting shallow and rapidly changing emotions,
  • discomfort when not the center of attention,
  • prone to exaggerating,
  • and, a tendency to be easily influenced by others.

Behaviours and Characteristics of High-Conflict Individuals

Regardless of the specific personality type, high-conflict individuals share certain common behaviours and characteristics:
  • Blaming others - high-conflict individuals often shift blame, refusing to take responsibility for their actions. They may create and perpetuate conflict by insisting that external factors are the root cause of their problems.
  • Extreme behaviours - from extreme emotions to impulsive actions, high-conflict individuals exhibit behaviours that can be challenging to predict or understand. Their actions often escalate conflicts rather than resolve them.
  • All-or-nothing thinking - high-conflict personalities tend to see situations in black-and-white terms, with little room for nuance. This can lead to polarized views and an inability to find common ground in conflicts.
  • High emotional intensity - emotions run high for high-conflict individuals, leading to frequent and intense emotional outbursts. They may struggle to regulate their emotions, making it challenging to have constructive discussions.

Strategies for Managing High-Conflict People

It is important to adopt a strategic and empathetic approach when dealing with high-conflict personalities. Here are some key strategies:
  1. Set boundaries - establishing clear boundaries is essential when dealing with high-conflict individuals. Clearly communicate what behaviours are unacceptable and the consequences for violating those boundaries.
  2. Avoid triggering - high-conflict people are often triggered by specific situations or topics. Identify these triggers and work to avoid or minimize them to prevent unnecessary escalation.
  3. Stay calm and empathetic - maintaining a calm and empathetic demeanor can defuse tension and create an environment conducive to problem-solving. Avoid reacting emotionally and focus on understanding the underlying issues.
  4. Use B.I.F.F. responses - Eddy discusses the concept of B.I.F.F. as a communication strategy. Responding in a B.I.F.F. manner helps keep interactions constructive and minimizes the potential for escalation. Let’s break down what each element means and how it can be applied:

    Brief – Keeping your responses or communications brief will reduce the chances of prolonged, angry exchanges. It's not about defending yourself; it's about providing a concise response and ending the communication effectively.

    Informative – the main reason to respond to a hostile email is to correct inaccurate statements that may be seen by others. Focus on the accurate statements you want to make, not on the inaccurate statements made by the other party.

    Friendly – thinking of a friendly response will increase your chances of a friendly or neutral response in return. Don’t give the other person a reason to get defensive. You do not have to be friends, just make your correspondence sound relaxed and non-antagonistic.

    Firm – in a non-threatening way, state your information or position on the issue. For example, you might say, “That is all I’m going to say on this issue”. Be careful not to make comments that invite further discussion. 
  5. Offer choices - provide high-conflict individuals with choices and options whenever possible. This empowers them and fosters a sense of control, reducing the likelihood of confrontations.
  6. Set realistic expectations - recognize that high-conflict individuals may not easily change their behaviour. Setting realistic expectations helps manage disappointment and allows for a more measured response to their actions.
  7. Seek professional assistance - in some cases, seeking the help of a mediator, therapist, or counselor can be instrumental in navigating conflicts with high-conflict individuals. Professionals trained in dealing with such personalities can offer valuable insights and guidance.

Legal Strategies for Managing High-Conflict Personalities

When you believe you are dealing with a high-conflict personality on the other side of your divorce, there are a couple other tips to help manage and navigate what you are going through:
  • Understand personality disorders – make sure you educate yourself about borderline and narcissistic personality disorders to better comprehend the behaviours and dynamics involved. It is important not to diagnose your ex, as it usually ends up distracting from a real resolution. In reality, a small percentage of people have these diagnosable disorders. However, understanding how personality disorders operate can be very beneficial in reaching a resolution in your family law matter.  
  • Limit direct communication - use written forms of communication, like email, to maintain a record of interactions and reduce emotional intensity. Online applications like Our Family Wizard or coParentor are great resources to help parties communicate. Keeping communication in writing helps with the next step - documentation. You cannot provide supporting evidence for things people have said over the phone.
  • Documentation - keep detailed records of all communications, incidents, and relevant information. Documentation can be crucial in legal proceedings because you are trying to show to a third-party what is happening in your case. Without supporting documentation, it becomes a “he said, she said” situation and high-conflict personalities are quite good at persuading new parties. 
  • Child-focused approach - keep the wellbeing of any children involved as the central focus. Develop parenting plans and decisions that prioritize the children’s need and minimize conflict. 
  • Avoid power struggles - stay focused on your goals, pick your battles, and avoid being drawn into unnecessary conflicts. 
  • Hire a lawyer who specializes in dealing with high-conflict personalities or at least get some advice from one - a family lawyer trained in dealing with high-conflict disputes can likely help guide you through this process and provide even more assistance in dealing with high-conflict personalities. 
  • Explore alternative dispute resolutions methods – this could include mediation or collaborative divorce, to find mutually agreeable solutions outside a courtroom setting. 
Remember these strategies are general recommendations and you may need to adapt them based on your own specific circumstances. 

The more information you have about dealing with high-conflict personalities the better off you will be in moving forward. Personalities drive conflict, and a high-conflict personality can make divorce far more difficult than it needs to be. Unfortunately, neither a court order nor an arbitration decision can compel such individuals to change their behaviour. Your best strategy is to manage what you can control (your own behaviour), to avoid giving the other party a reason to escalate conflict.
Facing a family law dispute with a high-conflict individual can be a daunting journey, but you don't have to navigate it alone. Understanding the intricacies of high-conflict personalities is just the first step towards a more manageable resolution. Whether you're dealing with complex communication dynamics, seeking effective legal strategies, or striving to protect the well-being of your children, the expertise and guidance of a seasoned family lawyer can be invaluable. At Crossroads Law, our experienced team is well-versed in handling high-conflict cases, offering personalized support and strategic advice tailored to your unique situation. Don't let the challenges of high-conflict disputes overwhelm you. Reach out for your free 20-minute consultation today and take a proactive step towards a more positive outcome for yourself and your family.

The information contained in this blog is not legal advice and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject. The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only.