Definitions Related to High Conflict Personalities

©  2007 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

The following are some of the common terms used in the family law community by mental health and legal professionals. The terms in italics were created specifically by Bill Eddy to explain the dynamics of High Conflict Personalities in High Conflict cases.

Abandonment, Fear Of: An unrealistically intense and overwhelming fear of being deserted and left alone, generally stemming from childhood beliefs that one cannot survive alone. One of the chief traits in someone with BPD, although it may be expressed in many different ways.

Antisocial Personality Disorder: A personality disorder characterized by the routine violation of social rules and laws, lack of empathy and remorse, a willingness to harm others for personal gain, smooth deception and conscious manipulation.

Assertive Approach: Our term for taking strong action in your court case, without purposefully harming others and being careful not to make yourself into a Target. In contract to the Aggressive Approach used by most Blamers and the Passive Approach of many Targets before they came to court.

Blamer: Short for Persuasive Blamer, described below in this Glossary.

Borderline Or BPD: A term used to describe someone with Borderline Personality Disorder or someone with Borderline Personality Traits that do not meet all of the criteria for the disorder. Such persons exhibit a rigid pattern of difficulties that often includes: fear of abandonment, frequent anger, wide mood swings, clinging behavior, impulsive and self-destructive acts, manipulative behaviors, and an inability to reflect on their own role in their frequent interpersonal problems.

Cognitive Distortions: Automatic negative thoughts that are extreme and inaccurate, commonly with some or all of the following characteristics: All-or-nothing Thinking, Jumping to Conclusions, Personalization, Emotional Reasoning, Exaggerated Fears and Projection. Most people are able to recognize that these thoughts are extreme and inaccurate and they consider new information to test out the accuracy of these thoughts. However, those with personality disorders tend to have more cognitive distortions, tend to believe in them, and tend to act on them. They unconsciously resist new information and instead intensely defend their distortions.

Collaborative Divorce: This is a process of growing popularity, in which each party obtains an attorney who agrees they will never take the case to court. Instead, the attorneys (and therapists and financial planners) work hard with the parties to resolve the case completely by agreement. If no agreement is possible, the attorneys have to drop out and the parties have to hire new attorneys to go to court.

Distortion Campaign: This is a term coined by Randi Kreger and Paul Mason, the authors of Stop Walking on Eggshells: When Someone You Love Has Borderline Personality Disorder (1998, New Harbinger Publications). This is a frequent occurrence for those with personality disorders, as they aggressively try to persuade others that their cognitive distortions are true. Since their distortions are usually obvious to others as extreme and unlikely, they escalate their emotions to try to persuade others that they are victims. The Targets of their distortion campaigns are often those closest to them who no longer support their cognitive distortions, which feels extremely threatening to the Blamer’s world view. These campaigns often involve spreading rumors to the Target’s extended family members, professionals (therapist, doctor, accountant, and so forth), community, and eventually to the courts.

Emotional Facts: Emotionally-generated false information, accepted as true and appearing to require emergency action. Similar to tumors. These “facts” are commonly generated from the emotional reasoning of a Borderline or Narcissist. It feels true, therefore it must be true, is their thinking. Yet these emotional facts are often persuasive to court professionals, who have no history of the person’s interpersonal behavior and allegations. These facts include exaggerations, twisted conclusions, and non-existent events. The Borderline or Narcissist may adamantly believe these emotional facts, even no one else does.

High Conflict Personality: Usually someone with the traits of a Cluster B Personality Disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association – presently the DSM-IV. The Cluster B personality disorders are: Borderline, Narcissistic, Antisocial and Histrionic. These four are best known for their frequent and dramatic interpersonal conflicts and crises. Their personality characteristics often bring them into disputes which involve many others to resolve – including the courts.

Histrionic: A Cluster B personality disorder characterized by constant drama, emotional reasoning, fear of being ignored, extreme efforts to be the center of attention, superficial relationships, and difficulty solving one’s own problems.

Narcissist Or NPD: A term used to describe someone with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder or someone with Narcissistic Personality Traits that do not meet all of the criteria for the disorder. Such persons exhibit a rigid pattern of difficulties, which often includes the following: fear of being seen as inferior, self-centeredness, frequent disdain for others, expectations of special treatment, lack of empathy, manipulative behaviors, and an inability to reflect on their own role in their frequent interpersonal problems.

Negative Advocate: This is the expression we use for anyone who advocates for a Blamer’s cognitive distortions and negative behavior in a court case. A comparable term is “enabler” for those who advocate for alcoholics’ and addicts’ negative behaviors and continued use of substances. Negative Advocates may include family members, friends, attorneys and even unwary mental health professionals. Negative Advocates often absorb the strong emotions of a Blamer and add to them in efforts to persuade other professionals and the courts that the Blamer is a victim and that the Target is to blame. Many Negative Advocates stop supporting the Blamer once the true facts of the case emerge, while some others (including some professionals) remain strong Negative Advocates despite mounting evidence that the Blamer has misperceived events or purposely engaged in abusive behavior. Negative Advocate attorneys are about 10-20% of all attorneys, yet they often draw a greater amount of attention to themselves.

Personality Disorder: A mental health diagnosis under Axis II of the DSM-IV of the American Psychiatric Association. Generally identified as a long-term pattern of dysfunctional behavior and inner distress, which causes the person to have repeated behavior and inner distress, which causes the person to have repeated interpersonal difficulties and other personal impairment – which is not attributed to a specific current situation but chronically present in the person’[s life. About 10% of the general population is considered by mental health professional to have a personality disorder. There are ten specific personality disorders identified in the DSM-IV, but two in particular seem to be increasingly present in high conflict divorces: Borderline and Narcissist, described above in this Glossary.

Persuasive Blamers: (Blamers): Those with life-long personalities of blaming others for all problems, including their own. They most commonly have personality traits associated with the Cluster B Personality Disorders found in the DSM-IV: Borderline, Narcissist, Histrionic, and Antisocial Personality Disorders. They are preoccupied with blaming others and cannot look at their own contribution to their problems. In court, they are often able to persuade others who do not know them—including attorneys, therapists, evaluators and judges—that they are victims of those they blame, even though the opposite may be true. Given the limits on evidence and lack of knowledge of personality disorders, courts often believe them at the beginning of – and sometimes throughout – a court case. Blamers are a subgroup of people with BPD or NPD. Many people with BPD or NPD are not Persuasive Blamers.

Problem Solver Attorneys: In contrast to Negative Advocate Attorneys, Problem Solvers try to avoid representing their clients’ cognitive distortions. Instead, they encourage settlement and focus on solutions to court cases. They do not “split” their cases into “good spouse” vs. “bad spouse,” but focus on recognizing the family’s problems and they look for solutions. Collaborative divorce attorneys are Problem Solvers.

Splitting: “Splitting” is a psychosocial concept that describes when someone unconsciously “splits” someone. The person doing the splitting sees the Target as all good (a Mother Theresa) or all bad (a Hitler). It is an All-Or-Nothing cognitive distortion, common to those with personality disorders. For Borderlines, this may explain why they seem to hate themselves one minute, and then defend themselves as totally innocent and blameless the next. It also explains why their see their spouse as all good one minute (up on a pedestal) and then all bad (I hate you!) the next.

Narcissists come to see themselves as all superior and their spouses as all inferior. Since the spouses of Borderlines and Narcissists are often self-sacrificing and work very hard (perhaps too hard) at being “good,” the Borderline or Narcissist works even harder at proving to the world that their spouse is “bad.” Therefore, the spouse becomes a Target of Blame. The Borderline or Narcissist feels psychologically driven to convince everyone else in the world that the Target is a very bad person (see “distortion campaign”) because of this unconscious splitting.

Otherwise, they would have to share the blame (which recognizes having good and bad qualities), and this cannot fit into their consciousness. When spouses split up in a divorce, they are often “split” into the totally good spouse and the totally bad spouse in the mind of a Borderline or Narcissist.

Thus, the Borderline or Narcissist may physically assault their spouse or attempt to prove to the court that their spouse has done the worst things possible – often falsely alleging domestic violence of child sexual abuse – and that they are a very good person and one of the best parents in the world. A potential Target should prepare for this splitting process, try to educate their attorney about it, and notify authorities and relatives that a distortion campaign is likely to begin – regardless of who initiates the divorce.

Target: Our word for the spouse who becomes the focus of blame by a Borderline or Narcissist in many of today’s family court cases. Borderlines or Narcissists are generally unable to reflect on their own behavior or beliefs and feel like helpless victims. Thus, they “target” their spouse as the cause of their problems, with such a high level of emotional intensity and a drive to recruit others (“Negative Advocates”) that court evaluators and Judges are sometimes misled and join in blaming the Target.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high-conflict disputes with the most difficult people.

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