We’d all like to think divorce will never happen to us. We would never be involved in one of those crazy divorces you hear about or see on television.
But what if it did happen? And what if you found out your soon-to-be ex is crazy?
Where Do I Start When Getting a Divorce?
I often get calls from men and women who are starting a divorce. They don’t know what to do, other than to call a lawyer.
While I am flattered to be thought of first, my response is to suggest mediation. It is a brilliant way to amicably dissolve a marriage between two rationally-minded individuals.
Meditators have an extensive knowledge of the law, coupled with hundreds of hours of training on how to handle tough, angry, and grieving personalities. It can save lots of time and money when both parties can agree to the terms of a divorce in mediation, not in a long, drawn-out court battle.
Occasionally, there is a spouse who even a mediator can’t help. Sometimes, they’re referred to a ‘crazy,’ but clinically, they’re called high-conflict personalities.
While these individuals can be particularly challenging, this disorder does have certain predictable traits, which can be met with strategic responses to mitigate conflict.
Characteristics and Traits of High-Conflict Personalities
- Lacks self-awareness – the spouse does not understand how they contribute to their own problems or how they can change.
- Extreme response to conflict, struggling to resolve disagreements – they are prone to high exaggeration, distorted logic, chronic distress, and aversion to interpersonal problem-solving.
- Well-developed habit of seeking attention for bad behavior – this may be a result of a genetic tendency, or something learned in early childhood.
- Surround themselves with a negative support system – their weak problem-solving skills and difficulty adapting means they tend to keep company with others who encourage their extreme emotions or self-sabotaging behavior.
If you think your spouse, your ex, or someone you know has a high-conflict personality, there are a few strategies you can implement which may help lead to a resolution.
Strategies for Interacting with High-Conflict Personalities
The best strategy for interacting with a high-conflict personality is CARS: Connect, Analyze, Respond, and Set Limits. Acknowledging the other person is experiencing unpleasant feelings, letting them know you care, and articulating that you understand the source of their feelings is essential.
Remember, you want to avoid agreeing with their perspective on facts or volunteering to fix their issues while maintaining an arms-distance relationship. Acknowledging someone’s frustration is not the same as trying to resolve the feelings for them.
- Connect – Your spouse’s fear of abandonment may require reassuring statements to alleviate them. Such as, “I want to help you,” “I will pay attention,” and “I will listen.” Their fear of being ignored or being seen as inferior may be diminished with your assurances. For example, “I respect your efforts,” “These are simply the rules we all must follow.” If the high-conflict personality fears being dominated or hoodwinked, you can say, “I know this can be confusing, I will work with you on this.”
- Analyze – Making a choice and weighing options forces the brain into rational thinking skills. By having them write down a list of options or make a choice about future-focused proposals in detail, it can quickly make a high-conflict personality feel empowered. Their role and ability to make a decision should be emphasized repeatedly and respectfully.
- Respond – I have heard this cleverly termed “ambivalent comfort.” Long explanations, arguments, defensiveness, or wavering can inflame the frustration of a high-conflict personality. To avoid getting triggered into the narrative or tangent of this individual, try responding in a BIFF way – brief, informative, friendly, and firm.
- Set Limits – Spell out specific limits based on external factors. Explaining why limitations have to be in place, rather than it being a dictatorial set of rules you invented, can diminish pushback or feelings of condescension.
If CARS is too much to remember, you can always default to mirroring. Similar to how watching someone yawn can make you yawn, mirroring can be used to help an extremely upset individual return to a calm, more rational state.
This can be done by intentionally acting in the opposite manner of the person who is visibly upset. Try putting the person at ease by using a tender tone of voice, avoiding logical arguments, and using firm, but calm body language.
All this being said, you should never put yourself in an unsafe or threatening situation in an attempt to communicate with your soon-to-be ex. If you feel things have escalated to this level or interactions are no longer productive, then it’s time to contact a lawyer, and maybe the police.
Now, please remember, this information was designed to help you through a worst-case scenario divorce with a high-conflict personality. The majority of divorces are not highly dramatized, they’re merely two people navigating through hurt feelings and joint property.