March 3, 2020 by Lori Grover, NCM, Chair of Rhode Island NPO and Divorce Mediator
Entitlement. A hallmark characteristic of high-conflict personalities (HCPs) is the belief that they’re entitled to more of everything than anyone else. The assertive or even aggressive nature of these personalities is a mask they wear to hide the deep insecurity and lack of self-esteem that exists at the deepest levels of themselves. Most people in relationships with people with these personalities never understand this deep void in their spouse, parent, sibling or coworker. Instead, their experience is one of confusion, fear, abuse and in many cases, an unknowing enabler. The impenetrable psychological walls they build and their persona of grandeur are mechanisms HCPs use to control and manipulate their environment whether it’s their spouse, child or others. Chaos in the lives of these personalities is as essential to them as having air to breathe.
When there’s smoke, there’s fire. According to the largest study ever conducted by US National Institutes of Health on personality disorders, about 10 percent of the population have either Narcissistic or Bipolar Disorder or both. Among those who met the criteria for BPD, 53 percent were women and 47 percent were men. Among those who met the criteria for NPD, 62 percent were men and 38 percent were women. Among people who met the criteria for one of these disorders, nearly 40 percent met the criteria for both. Such people may appear charming, quite social and very down to earth with a great personality. This is the same mask most high conflict personalities wear in public, but people close to them live with someone quite different. If you blame yourself for not seeing the signs sooner, don’t. These disorders are difficult to diagnose and their behaviors often aren’t apparent until months after a relationship begins.
HCPs assess everyone they meet, like auditioning actors for a play, to determine their personality and the value that person can provide. The only attachments they form are to people who are compassionate, sensitive and caring or those who are vulnerable because they are easy to manipulate. What everyone who’s been in a relationship with a HCP understands, is that the person they came to know is not the same person they met at the beginning of the relationship. Once HCP’s are comfortable in a relationship, the mask comes off and their true personalities are exposed. The duality of these personalities is disturbing and makes divorcing a high conflict personality so difficult.
Dealing with difficult divorces today is less about legal issues and more about handling difficult personalities. HCPs don’t like negotiating because it interferes with the power and control they need to maintain. Regardless of who initiates a divorce, the HCP will always make their spouse the target of their abuse and their behavior will be predictably unpredictable. HCP’s react to divorcing in one of two ways: either they hire an aggressive attorney and begin a full-on assault on their spouse, or they agree to participate in mediation because they believe the lack of legal authority will allow them to control the outcome. In either case the HCP is looking to gain an ally. Since most attorneys lack the ability to recognize these personality disorders and manage them appropriately, most HCPs find the ally they’re looking for which marks the beginning of a long, difficult journey.
In reality, HCPs aren’t as concerned about the financial or logistical outcome of a divorce, as they are about protecting their public persona and hurting or punishing their spouse. This is the intent behind the lies and drama they create, which often works well for them and, unfortunately, to their advantage in court. Just like at the beginning of a new relationship, HCPs display their best personality for the court and when their spouses understandably react to defend themselves, they become the ones who look unreasonable, disorganized and even irrational. These personalities have the energy and will to play out this type of drama for as long as the court will allow. They aren’t concerned about the consequences of their behavior on their own life nor do they care about the impact their behavior will have on the lives of their spouse or children.
As a mediator who works with high-conflict divorce cases, I have seen mediation create much better outcomes in shorter periods of time. My success with high conflict divorces isn’t because I’m special, it’s the result of my ability to understand these disorders and manage them appropriately. But skill and management aren’t the only factors that contribute to making these divorces easier. What’s equally important, yet many spouses of HCPs are never told, is that specific modifications to their behavior can have a big impact on their relationship with their high conflict spouse during and after a divorce.
The behavior of a high-conflict personality doesn’t change, but, changing how you interact with them can make a big difference.
In my next article, I’ll talk about co-parenting with a HCP and the impact of these personalities on children.
Lori A. Grover is a Nationally Certified Divorce Mediator in private practice in Rhode Island.