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Keys To Unpacking The High Conflict Personality

Written by: Liz Merrill, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


“My ex is a narcissist.”

How often you hear this? Yet with only 5% of the population diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), how is it possible that everyone’s husband is a narcissist?

Narcissist. Trauma bond. Gaslighting. Flying monkeys: these are all buzzwords flying around the internet that anyone who has done even a cursory Google search about narcissism can tell you. The statistics say one thing, while Google (and multiple studies) say another thing. The fact is that narcissism is a spectrum. It’s hard to diagnose, but many people present with subclinical, narcissistic tendencies. In fact, there are some studies that suggest that as many as 30% of all divorces in this country are considered “high conflict”[1].

“High conflict personalities” can include people with narcissistic personalities, bipolar disorder, or other personality disorders, and they tend to have these characteristics: preoccupation with blaming, all-or-nothing thinking, unmanageable emotions and extreme behavior. The divorce process only increases these behaviors. They will use tactics such as “gaslighting” to manipulate people and systems and gain power. They will lie, obfuscate, ignore deadlines, refuse to comply with court orders, and waste time, money, and energy in order to “win”.

Attorneys and judges aren’t necessarily trained to recognize these disorders and often do not know how to address them in a divorce setting. The courts aren’t always equipped to deal with these kinds of intractable conflicts and meet the needs of these families. Often families end up in court post-divorce with filing endless motions that sap the resources of the courts, the finances of the parties, and the emotional wellbeing of the children.

High conflict intervention and education with a specialist could potentially save the family thousands of dollars. When divorce professionals are armed with this knowledge, they should be able to help clients master these steps break the cycle of conflict, stay out of the courts, create parenting plans that are realistic and sustainable, and have communication tactics that work and improve the health of the family system.

In my work as a divorce mediator and coach, I discovered the reality of these statistics on a daily basis. I talk to hundreds of people who are, in fact, in relationships with “high conflict personalities”. They are in abusive relationships and like most forms of domestic abuse, this happens privately, behind closed doors. People are isolated and often feel like no one understand their situation, from their own friends and family to divorce professionals and the court. Much of this is very hard to prove and that the court and divorce professionals often have a hard time parsing out. Our courts and many of our divorce professionals don’t have the training, background, interest, or bandwidth in learning how to manage it.

What is a high conflict personality?

High conflict people have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that increases conflict rather than reducing or resolving it. This pattern usually happens over and over again in many different situations with many different people.

Bill Eddy calls high conflict personalities “blamers” or “bad actors”. This means they have an ongoing pattern of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behavior or threats, and a preoccupation with blaming others. They have a Target of Blame, whom they regularly bully, harass, blame, humiliate, annoy, spread rumors about, and subject to many other adversarial behaviors. This pattern increases and maintains interpersonal conflicts, rather than reducing or resolving them — which is what most people try to do.

High conflict personalities isn’t a diagnosis – it’s really more of a description of conflict behavior, and most litigated cases have at least one. Having an unmanaged high conflict personalities escalating a case can result in unpaid bills, multiple grievances and frivolous motions filed, long term damage to children, etc. So it’s worth learning how to recognize and manage issues early in the divorce process.

High conflict personalities also seem to have personality disorders or some traits of these disorders. This means that they have long-term patterns of interpersonal dysfunction, lack of reflection on their own behavior, and lack of change.

Five of the 10 personality disorders tend to become high conflict personalities. These are also called Cluster B personality disorders. They characterized by dramatic, overly emotional, or unpredictable thinking or behavior:

  • narcissistic,

  • borderline,

  • antisocial,

  • paranoid, and

  • histrionic personality disorders or traits.

This helps us understand why they stay stuck in conflict—namely because they don’t reflect on their part of the problem, and they don’t change. So, the conflict continues or gets worse.

Some studies suggest that up to 15% of our society has some type of personality disorder (and it’s on the rise) – but not all people with these disorders are high conflict personalities, and not all high conflict personalities have personality disorders.

Having said that, even though it’s growing, it is also somewhat predictable. And therefore, if you can recognize it and understand it, you can manage it more effectively.

Like everyone, people HPC run the gamut – they can be highly intelligent, or not so much, they can be successful in their careers, or not so much. They do tend to have more substance abuse, depression, anxiety than people who don’t have it – that’s largely because their behavior and tactics don’t always work the way they want them to and they (and others around them) get frustrated…and it gets them into trouble. But because they lack the ability to self-reflect, they don’t resolve the issues in themselves that cause this trouble.

If you are in the middle of a divorce with a high conflict person, it is going to be rough – but it won’t always be this way. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family and professionals who can listen to you, love you, believe you, and support you. It takes a village, as they say. Know that you are doing the right thing, as challenging as it is. You may feel confused and discouraged and scared – that’s normal. But you will get through it.

If you need support right now, let me know – I’ll help you identify some practical ways to move through things that you can implement today!

Follow me on Facebook, Instagram, Linkedin, and visit my website for more info!


Liz Merrill, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Liz Merrill is a Mediator and a Divorce Coach with a specialization in High Conflict and Narcissistic relationships. She lectures regularly on high conflict divorce strategies and is a sought-after speaker and podcast guest. She also engages in regular pro bono work for families who are experiencing financial hardship and offers pro bono services through various nonprofits and the Colorado Court system. Her understanding of psychological and physiological reactions to trauma, conflict, and anxiety brings a holistic approach to her work with families caught in the High Conflict cycle. After her own litigious high-conflict divorce, she saw the need for a holistic approach to divorce mediation, which included non-violent communication skills, managing trauma, and an understanding of how personality traits and personality disorders create high conflict in a divorce. When she started working as a mediator for the courts, she discovered how badly equipped most divorce professionals are to manage the specific needs of people in high conflict relationships and how damaging it can be to the individuals and, most importantly, the children and family systems. Now she helps hundreds of people in crisis find workable solutions so they can reduce anxiety, save money, and move on with their lives.



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