Domestic Violence vs. High Conflict Families: Are one or two people driving the conflict?

By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

For years, there has been a tension between the terms “high conflict families” and “domestic violence” in family courts. Since the 1980s, family law professionals (lawyers, judges, mediators, and therapists) have considered most separating and divorcing families to have two fairly equal contributors to the disputes they bring to court. This is based on the family systems theory of most mental health professionals, which is that every family member plays a part in family conflicts and each person influences each other person. Families which repeatedly come back to court are often considered “high conflict families.”

On the other hand, since the 1990s, domestic violence has been recognized as a serious problem in a significant number of cases (perhaps 50% that come to family courts). Domestic violence (also known as Intimate Partner Violence or IPV) is generally a one-way problem, with a perpetrator of the abuse and a victim/survivor who lives in fear and is just trying to cope. The problem for family law professionals is sorting out which type of problem situation exists in a given family, since they often look similar on the surface with mutual allegations of abusive behavior, a lot of intense emotions, and children who may have taken sides in the conflict—for good or bad reasons. This article addresses the importance of distinguishing families with one perpetrator of abuse and families with two significant contributors to the family problems. Lawyers, judges, therapists, and mediators need to be careful not to mix up what is going on.

High Conflict Personalities

To be most effective, we need to think in terms of high conflict personalities with violence and high conflict personalities without violence. In other words, the problem isn’t the family, it’s the individual. Some families have one high conflict individual and others have two high conflict individuals. In order to accurately treat the family, it helps to know who has what problem.

Generally, high conflict personalities have a pattern of behavior that includes:

  1. A preoccupation with blaming others.
  2. A lot of all-or-nothing thinking.
  3. Unmanaged emotions
  4. Extreme behaviors
  5. And frequently a personality disorder or traits

With Violence

For a significant number of families, one person has this pattern of behavior and it includes domestic violence. The violence is often a result of their high conflict personality, because that person unreasonably blames their victim for minor or non-existent problems, applies a lot of all-or-nothing thinking to their situations, has difficulty managing their emotions and impulses, and therefore physically assaults their partner from time to time. Because of their personality, they may use coercive control over the other person’s finances, friendships, healthcare, and other aspects of their life. The other person in the relationship is their victim (more positively know as a “survivor”), who lives in fear and is under the coercive control of the violent partner.

People with such a high conflict personality with violence need an intensive treatment program, such as a 52-week group therapy program for domestic violence. They often have a personality disorder (PD), which means they have an “enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior” (American Psychiatric Association, 2022) that is interpersonally dysfunctional and unlikely to change or to take a long time to change. Research indicates a correlation of domestic violence and those with borderline personality disorder (BPD) or antisocial personality disorder (ASPD):

With respect to the relation between PDs and aggression, a systematic review examining the relationship between PDs and violent behavior found ASPD and BPD diagnoses to be predictive of violence. Importantly, the authors noted that “a significant percentage of patients with personality disorders (if not the majority) seem not to be violent” emphasizing that while ASPD and BPD features are correlated with violent behavior, not everyone who carries an ASPD or BPD diagnosis is necessarily violent. (Collison & Lynam, 2021, 1-2) 

The victim/survivor can usually benefit from counseling but is not the cause of the family conflicts or violence. To dismiss abuse concerns and consider such a family as having two equal contributors to their ongoing conflicts (a “high conflict family”) not only misses the reality of the situation but may keep the victim in an extremely dangerous situation. It is not unusual for restraining orders to be denied in family court when a judge believes that both parties are equal contributors to the conflicts or believes that the victim is lying. This happens more often than most people realize.

For example, in a California case in 2023, a trial court judge denied a request for a restraining order because he didn’t believe that the woman’s concerns were serious enough:

The Court doesn’t understand why there was a delay in requesting the restraining order, but perhaps it’s because despite the fact that Ms. Vinson repeats that she’s been repeatedly threatened by Mr. Kinsey, she repeatedly goes back and has contact with Mr. Kinsey. So it’s clear to the Court that she’s not particularly concerned about his comment that he will kill her. I don’t know if that’s a colloquialism. I don’t know if that’s just a phrase, but it has no meaning. So she’s asking the Court to interpret the meaning of that as being an attempt to engage in a violent act or the threat of violence. But at the same time she doesn’t act like it’s a threat of violence. And for those reasons as well as issues of credibility, the Court denies the request for the restraining order.
Vinson v. Kinsey, 93 Cal. App. 5th 1166, 1173-74, 311 Cal. Rptr. 3d 628, 634 (2023)  

However, the court of appeals reversed the trial court and said that the “totality of the circumstances” were not considered, which showed that threats of violence had been made and that she had fear of being killed despite also trying to get food for the children which required him to ride in the car with her to the store (because he controlled the money). The appellate court said when reversing the denial of the restraining order:

The court’s conclusions that Kinsey’s threat to kill Vinson “has no meaning” and Vinson “doesn’t act like it‘s a threat of violence” effectively imposed on Vinson a singular vision of how an abused woman should act. But “‘[a]ll women exposed to violence and abuse in their intimate relationships do not respond similarly, contradicting the mistaken assumption that there exists a singular “battered woman profile.” Like other trauma victims, battered women differ in the type and severity of their psychological reactions to violence and abuse, as well as in their strategies for responding to violence and abuse.
Vinson v. Kinsey, 93 Cal. App. 5th 1166, 1176, 311 Cal. Rptr. 3d 628, 636 (2023)

This case is a good example of viewing both people as contributing to the conflicts and not taking a potential victim seriously because it seems like a simple problem with both of them having anger and ambivalence about their relationship. It is true that they both contributed to their relationship communication problems, but only one person was violent in the past and threatening future violence.  

Without Violence

There are many family law cases that involve one or more parties with a high conflict personality which do not involve violence. There are usually allegations of bad behavior, such as substance abuse, verbal abuse, parental alienation, false allegations, and so forth. Just because there is no violence does not mean that both parties are equal contributors to high conflict behavior. In many of these cases, it is still one person who is driving the conflict, often because of a high conflict personality.

Many of these cases involve parenting time and whether one parent should be the primary parent because of the other parent’s bad behavior. Often that is the best plan for the children, at least until a highly-dysfunctional parent gets sufficient counseling to change their behavior. If they have a personality disorder, such change is often unlikely because it is an enduring pattern of behavior and decisions shouldn’t be made based on an assumption of behavior change.

There are also cases where both parties have high conflict personalities and may even have personality disorders. In these cases, both people should get some form of counseling to see whether they can change enough to calm their conflicts. If they both have personality disorders, then such change is unlikely.

Conclusion

By now it should be clear that “high conflict families” is not a useful term for people involved in family court. The primary issue driving their conflicts may be one of at least three possibilities: one person who has a high conflict personality with violence, one person who has a high conflict personality without violence, or two people who have high conflict personalities without violence. It also must be considered that occasionally there are two high conflict personalities with violence.

Presumptions, whether conscious or unconscious, about high conflict families have always been a major problem in family courts. All professionals and parents can benefit from looking deeper at what is really going on and what the best solutions should be in each unique case in terms of counseling and parenting plans.

References:

American Psychiatric Association (APA): Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 2022, 734.

Katherine L. Collison and Donald R. Lynam, “Personality disorders as predictors of intimate partner violence: A meta-analysis,” Clinical Psychology Review 88 (2021) 102047.

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Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, mediator, and the Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute. He is the author of several books including High Conflict People in Legal Disputes and Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

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