If I asked “Are you living with a high conflict person?” what would you say? Every relationship experiences conflict from time to time. Especially when under pressure from life events outside our control… like a global pandemic. So if you and your spouse have been arguing more recently, know that you’re not alone. It doesn’t necessarily mean they (or you) are a high conflict person.
There are big differences between going through a bad patch and living with a high conflict partner. In Are you living with a high conflict person we’ll explore those differences. You’ll know the signs to look for, and learn what to do about it.
Is it normal conflict or high conflict?
No marriage is a bed of roses all the time. At some point even the most loved-up couple will row, or start to take each other for granted. And after five months of Covid-related stresses even the strongest relationships are being tested.
So is the conflict in your marriage is caused by these lifestyle stresses and strains? Or is high conflict how your spouse approaches life?
Ask yourself these questions:
Can you trace when the conflict started?
A big sign that your relationship is high conflict is if it’s always been this way. Or at least, since the honeymoon period was over and you were hooked.
Maybe you and your spouse were sniping at each other more during lockdown. Or because one of you is stressed at work, or for another reason you can pin it on.
In that case, it’s more likely this is normal conflict triggered by the pressures you’re under. Your relationship may need some serious TLC, and you may still decide that separation is the right decision. But high conflict is not likely to be the issue.
If, on the other hand, there is always something to argue about, high conflict may be at play. If there’s always something you (or others) are being blamed for, it’s more likely you’re married to a high conflict person.
Do your arguments make sense?
Partners of high conflict personalities are often left confused. That’s because the subject of the argument isn’t really the point. It’s simply the way a high conflict personality is lashing out.
In more normal conflict situations a couple might clash over anything. From big issues such as politics, to whether you left the milk out. Whatever the issue, it is the focus on the row you are having. Yes, things may yet heated, and communication standards may be less evolved than you’d like! But you both know what you’re talking about.
High conflict personalities are more likely to dish out a relentless array of blame, about unrelated issues, and leave you spinning. They are not interested in resolving the conflict. They need to keep it going, and to prove themselves right. It’s like an endless itch, and all the scratching in the world won’t make it go away.
Is there give and take on both sides?
In normal conflict situations there is space to take on board what the other person is saying. If you’re hot-headed, sometimes you need time to cool off and process. But usually both parties see that things aren’t as black and white as they seemed mid-argument.
With high conflict personalities there is no room for nuanced thinking. Or for any give and take. They are not able to see different perspectives, or empathise with your point of view. The only solution is the one that pleases them. If you try and explore other ways of thinking you may be met with extreme anger.
Your answers here are clues to whether it’s normal conflict, or whether you might have a high conflict partner. So if I asked you now “Are you living with a high conflict person?” what would you say?
What can you do if it’s normal conflict?
If it’s normal conflict, there’s work to be done! No-one is at their best living in conflict. It’s exhausting and demoralising. You owe it to yourself, your spouse, and any children to address the situation. A good start is to look at your communication.
People in healthy relationships have a pattern of communicating effectively and respectfully. That means taking the time to listen to understand, not having your response or defence lined up ready to attack.
Set time aside to talk and listen properly. Going out for coffee, in a more neutral place, can help. And you are more likely to be respectful of each other if others are around! It may also help to get support as you work through your conflict. You could look at relationship counselling – Relate offers online services, or a Google search will provide you with more options.
If you decide to separate, establishing respectful, open communication channels will still help you both.
What are the characteristics of high conflict personalities?
Do you suspect that the conflict is driven by your partner, not by the circumstances you’re in at the moment?
People with high conflict personalities tend to follow the same patterns of behaviour. According to Billy Eddy, therapist, lawyer and Director of the High Conflict Institute, there are four common characteristics:
High conflict personalities always blame others, rather than themselves. Even if this is illogical, or involves some imaginative twists to the tale.
You may be the target of blame yourself. You’ll know because your every minor fault or transgression is picked apart. Or others may be the target. The pattern you’ll notice is that your partner is never the one at fault. And there is no sense of personal responsibility.
All or nothing thinking
As you will have noticed in your relationship, there is no nuance in a high conflict personality’s mind. It’s a stark black and white, ‘with me or against me’, perspective. That means it’s very hard to reach any sort of solution, apart from giving in to what they want.
They may cut off friendships at the smallest perceived slight. They may extrapolate facts or opinions to form wild conclusions: “You don’t want to go to the pub tonight – you’re trying to cut me off from everyone”.
Flexibility, collaboration and compromise are not tools in the high conflict personality’s toolbox.
A high conflict personality may get highly emotional in defence of their black or white thinking. Rather than state an opinion (or fact) calmly, they are more likely to turn to anger. That may be directed at you, at your friendship circle, or strangers on the internet.
Equally, they can be very manipulative – perhaps shouting angrily at you in private, and being charm personified while out and about.
Linked to their extreme emotions, you may see extreme behaviour patterns from a high conflict spouse. We all have moments when we do or say things we regret, but for most people these are one-offs. High conflict people may act violently or aggressively repeatedly over time. They may attack physically in anger – whether that’s throwing something at a wall or hurting you.
They may also act to control and monitor you or others – stalking people online, checking your phone, or preventing you from being with others. It could be they are financially abusive, blocking you from sources of funds or tying up your time so you can’t have your own income. These are not normal behaviours, however normalised they have become in your relationship.
Will they change?
The short answer is no – it’s unlikely they will change. At least – not because you ask them to. They won’t take personal responsibility or accept blame for any of their behaviour, so why would they change?
The more nuanced answer is that change is possible. But they would need to both accept they need to change, and seek help from a specialist. This is not something that you can support them with on your own.
What can you do?
Are you living with a high conflict person?” If the answer is yes, your main priority is to yourself. Unlike in the case of more normal conflict, sitting around over coffee is not a way to deal with this. You need to take responsibility for what you can do, rather than try to change or rescue your spouse. Suggesting to them that they have a high conflict personality is not a good idea!
Consider your safety first. Is your partner emotionally, financially or physically abusing you? You can get help from Women’s Aid, remembering to clear your tracks from any devices you use.
Next, think about your emotional health and wellbeing. If you have been living with someone who is volatile, controlling or aggressive, you are likely to have been affected. Start to find space for yourself with other people. Take an evening class or join a volunteer group (socially distanced activities are starting to resume). Seek therapy if you can.
Remember the conflict is not your fault – your spouse will create it with no cause or invitation. But there are ways of communicating that can minimise the scope and heat. Keep your communication:
Brief: stick to the point at hand, to prevent conflict spirally. For example, “I am going to the pub with friends tonight.”
Informative: stick to facts, rather than giving advice. You’ll just add fuel to the fire.
Friendly: your partner may have wild emotions, but try not to get caught up in it. Keep as calm as possible.
Firm: have boundaries and stick to them. If you say you are going to the pub, go to the pub, whatever emotional manipulation comes your way.
Time to leave?
Life with a high conflict partner is stressful. It can also be demeaning and destructive. Unfortunately, much of the advice for embarking on divorce does not apply in the same way if you have a high conflict spouse.
You need a plan and you need support. Figure out who you can trust from your personal circle, and reach out to them. You may have become more distant as a result of your spouse’s behaviour. Your friends and family will understand. More than likely they will be relieved you are seeking their help.
I have a number of articles on my blog about planning divorce with a high conflict ex. You can start your research here.
And I am always available to work with you privately, or in The Absolute Academy, a community of supportive women who are there to cheer you on.
Just book in a free call with me to see how I can help you.
Emma Heptonstall, the Divorce Alchemist is author of the Amazon best selling book How to be a Lady Who Leaves, the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce Ready. A former lawyer, Emma is a family mediator and founder of Get Divorce Ready the online self-study and group programmes. Emma has been featured on BBC Radio, The Telegraph, the iPaper and in Marie Claire Magazine. To find out more visit www.emmaheptonstall.com