High Conflict People, Loss and Violence

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© 2011 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

Family law attorneys and clients are grieving the shooting deaths two days ago (Feb. 16) of Judy Soley, CFLS and Sandra Williamson, both apparently shot by the separated husband, James Williamson, outside of Fresno, California. They had been to court that morning and the victims were at a restaurant for a lunch recess, when he came and killed them. He then went home and killed himself, all of this according to the local paper, The Fresno Bee (Feb. 18).

The paper also reported that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder (manic depression), but wasn’t taking take his meds.

The divorce had been off and on over the past seven years, including a dispute over their lake-front property. Apparently, he had forged Sandra’s signature on a deed and had obtained a large loan based on it. He also had a history of domestic violence against Sandra (and also against his first wife). This was labeled a “contentious divorce.”

Contentious Divorces

Should lawyers and clients be scared of contentious divorces? I believe we do need to be very cautious with high conflict people (HCPs). They have a repeated pattern of aggressive behavior, which increases rather than resolves conflicts. HCPs in legal disputes often create their own conflicts, because “the issue’s not the issue” – their personality is the issue. Some people with personality disorders also have bipolar disorder, but most of them do not kill anyone.

However, HCPs have a particular problem with loss. They don’t grieve and heal losses the way that most people do. They often get stuck in the anger stage of the 5-stage grieving process. If loss upon loss stacks up, they can become dangerous, especially if they have a pattern of aggressive behavior that includes violence. One thing that can be anticipated is that HCPs will become more aggressive, not less, after another loss. Family court hearings often represent the likelihood of loss, even if it is exaggerated in the HCP’s mind. Therefore, it’s not surprising that we often hear of such violent incidents right before or after an important hearing when someone may lose a house, custody of a child or other loss.

Pattern of Behavior

The lesson to be learned is that HCPs have a pattern of high-conflict behavior that is somewhat predictable and that there are times when such behavior escalates. Lawyers and separating spouses need to learn the pattern and take precautions at times of many losses or perceived losses, regardless of the issue in dispute. The issue’s not the issue – the personality pattern is the issue.


Bill Eddy headshotBILL EDDY, LCSW, ESQ. is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute in San Diego, California. He pioneered the High Conflict Personality Theory (HCP) and is viewed globally as the leading expert on managing disputes involving people with high-conflict personalities. He has written more than twenty books on the topic, developed methods for managing high-conflict disputes, and has taught professionals in the U.S. and more than ten countries. He is also co-host of the popular podcast, It’s All Your Fault, and writes a popular blog on Psychology Today.

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