© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
We all have dealings with high-conflict people, in our families, at work and in our communities. They often catch us by surprise with their extreme thinking, emotions and behavior, which can include: an inability to compromise, lying, spreading rumors, stealing, damaging property, hiding money, suing their employers, frivolous lawsuits, stalking, abusing children, alienating children, domestic violence and sometimes even killing people. Yet most people scratch their heads, wondering why – and how to prevent these extreme behaviors in the future.
Generally, HCPs have a narrower range of behavior than ordinary people, which makes them more predictable. Understanding the patterns of their behavior can help you predict times of high risk – and to calm them or protect yourself before they escalate into their extreme behavior. This article explains some of the issues involved in predicting and avoiding their worst high-conflict behavior.
High-Conflict People (HCPs)
High conflict people (HCPs) have a pattern of getting stuck in conflict and increasing conflict, rather than reducing or resolving conflict. They tend to repeat and repeat their pattern, somewhat regardless of the circumstances and consequences. This pattern usually includes the following, which is often obvious to others, but not to themselves:
• A preoccupation with blaming others
• All-or-nothing solutions
• Unmanaged emotions
• Extreme behaviors
They lack awareness of this pattern and their negative impact on others, so that giving them negative feedback tends to increase their negative behavior (including intensely blaming the person who gave them the feedback) rather than leading to insight. For this reason, it’s important NOT to tell someone that you think he or she is a high-conflict person. (For methods of handling them that don’t rely on negative feedback, see the book: It’s All Your Fault: 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything, Eddy.)
HCPs tend to get stuck in this pattern and regularly engage in their extreme behavior when things don’t go well for them – especially in their high-expectation relationships.
High-Expectation Relationships (HER)
HCPs tend to play out this high-conflict pattern in high-expectation relationships, such as a boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, parent or child, close co-worker, best friend, professional involved in intense problems (such as a lawyer, therapist, doctor, clergy) and/or with people in positions of authority (such as a boss, employer, government agency representative).
In other words, it’s a relationship pattern – much like the relationship a child has with a parent: expectations of being taken care of; being really secure in the relationship; getting lots of attention and respect; tolerance of any behavior; and so forth. However, when there is a threat to this high-expectation relationship, HCPs tend to engage in intense behavior to maintain the relationship or punish the person for its loss – much like the way a young child treats a parent when desperately clinging or having a temper tantrum.
For HCPs who grew up with “insecure attachments” in their early childhood relationships with their parents, it may be that they are seeking a “secure parent-child attachment” in their adult relationships. Of course a secure parent-child attachment can never be completely fulfilled in an adult relationship, because adults cannot have the “unconditional love” for each other that a parent must have for a small infant (such as paying lots of one-way attention or tolerating lots of temper tantrums). So when HCPs engage in high-expectation relationships, they are bound to be frustrated when the reasonable person (or another HCP) can no longer tolerate their extreme (essentially child-like) behaviors. Yet the occurrence of these extreme behaviors can be predicted, to some extent, by understanding what triggers them.
Times of High Risk
For HCPs, extreme behavior is triggered by the perceived loss of the high-expectation relationship and their over-reaction to it. For an HCP, this sense of loss is carried inside and can burst out in any high-expectation relationship regardless of what the other person does, but especially at times the HCP perceives a relationship loss.
In the workplace or at school: For example, people experiencing bullying at work or at school often question themselves about what they did to cause the bully (often an HCP) to treat them so badly. Yet, much of the time it may be the HCP’s own thinking that has triggered an internal upset that then triggered their high-conflict behavior. However, there are events and warning signs that can help in knowing when there are times of high risk in the workplace or at school.
In cases of domestic violence, the victim often wonders what they did to cause their loved one to strike out at them. They often hope it was a mistake and won’t happen again. Then, when it happens again and again, victims lose self-esteem because they often blame themselves and lose energy and become more isolated. This, of course, is reinforced by the perpetrator of the domestic violence.
The most important message here is that it is not about the victim or “target of blame,” but rather about the bully or the perpetrator of domestic violence, and his or her perception of relationship loss that triggers their own extreme behavior in an effort to protect himself or herself against this perceived loss.
At first, it may be a mistaken assessment of danger on the part of the HCP. But then, their extreme behavior often leads to a real loss, as the victim or target of blame truly does try to get out of the relationship with the HCP. Such times are times of high risk, but times of any type of loss of relationship security are times of high risk with an HCP.
Types of loss by personality type: There appears to be at least five types of high-conflict people who engage in extreme behavior related to perceived relationship loss. Each type seems to have a particular relationship fear and over-reaction when it is triggered – either by internal upsets (such thinking about their own fears) or external events (such as a partner trying to leave the relationship or an employer threatening termination). Definitions of these personality types and their specific high-conflict behavior are explained in depth in the book It’s All Your Fault. Remember, it’s important not to tell someone you think he or she has this pattern, but rather to adjust your own behavior in getting into relationships, managing relationships and getting out of relationships.
Fear of Being Inferior or Powerless
Fear of Being Abandoned
Fear of Being Dominated
Fear of Being Ignored
Fear of Being Betrayed
Behavior by an employer or close relationship partner that fits into the person’s chronic fear pattern may trigger a time of high risk. For example, insulting a Narcissistic HCP may trigger their fear of being inferior – especially if the insult is done in public. On the other hand, a business set-back, financial set-back or relationship set-back may also trigger this fear of being inferior. It doesn’t have to be what someone says – it may be an event. If you think about the person’s prior history, you may be able to predict which types of events may create times of high risk for that particular person – especially given the above types of high-conflict personalities.
For example, threatening to leave or cut back a relationship with a Borderline HCP may trigger intense feelings of being abandoned – especially since those with this personality often misread their relationships to be ideal and more secure than they really are and they feel caught by surprise. For those who are victims of domestic violence, the time of leaving or threatening to leave a Borderline HCP (and many abusers have this pattern) can be the most high risk.
On the other hand, when things are calm and secure for a Borderline HCP, they may also interpret it as a sign of high risk and they may start a conflict in order to feel more emotionally engaged, as calmness sometimes feels frightening because there isn’t the emotional intensity they usually count on to feel secure. Realizing these anxieties can help you manage such a relationship better or prepare more thoroughly if you are planning to withdraw from it.
Antisocial HCPs are triggered when it appears that others are trying to dominate them, such as government officials, bosses or relationship partners. They also increase their risk of extreme behavior when a partner tries to leave – because of loss of dominance and control. Histrionic HCPs are triggered by the mere end of a conversation, so that they often escalate to keep you listening. Paranoid HCPs constantly fear conspiracies by those around them, so that when others are whispering or have a meeting or social event without them – these can be times of high risk.
All of the above are just some examples of times of high risk. The patterns of HCPs in high-expectation relationships vary from mild to very extreme, based primarily on their history of patterned behavior. However, knowing their types of fears and prior relationship behavior may help you predict their particular times of high risk.
The next question is what will a particular person do at these times of high risk – what type of extreme behavior will they engage in? Since they have a narrower pattern of behavior than the ordinary person, you can often predict the type and seriousness of extreme behavior by looking back to their pattern of extreme behavior in the past. Essentially, you can consider the following formula:
HCP + HER + Time of High Risk = Pattern of Extreme Behavior
Pattern of Extreme Behavior
Think of the worst type of behavior that the HCP has engaged in previously. For example, in the workplace a Borderline HCP may have spread rumors online when they felt their chronic fear of abandonment triggered when a friendly co-worker decided to back off from their close friendship. A Narcissistic HCP may have stolen inventory when they felt disrespected in an evaluation by a manager or insulted by another representative of the company.
In family relationships, an HCP who spreads rumors will likely spread more rumors at times of high risk (feeling abandoned, insulted, dominated, etc. by a relative). In a divorce, an HCP who runs away will likely run away at new times of high risk. For example, if an HCP loses some parenting time at a court hearing, they may leave the state (possibly kidnapping the child or simply abandoning the child to the parent who “won”). One who makes false allegations will probably make new false allegations. In separation and divorce cases involving Borderline or Narcissistic personalities, you can find a full list of times of high risk in the book Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone With Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Eddy and Kreger.
Much of high-conflict behavior is predictable, if you think about it. The key factors seem to be:
• A High-Conflict Person (HCP) with a narrow pattern of behavior, including a history of extreme behavior of one type or another.
• A High-Expectation Relationship for an HCP, in which he or she expects much more than normal needs will be met, including tolerance for extreme (generally child-like) behavior, such as one would see in a parent-child relationship in early childhood.
• Times of High Risk, when the HCP feels that his or her relationship expectations are being threatened (abandoned, insulted, dominated, ignored or betrayed), even if there is only a minor problem or no problem at all in the relationship – or especially if the relationship partner (or employer) is ending the relationship.
• Pattern of Extreme Behavior is likely to repeat itself, based on the nature of past extreme behavior.
Of course, there are several places to avoid this pattern overall. One is to avoid entering relationships with high-conflict people. This is not always easy, as they can present to others as very intelligent and charming for quite a while. Usually, within 6 to 12 months it becomes obvious that they have a high-conflict personality pattern, so that people are encouraged to avoid making major commitments to a relationship partner or employee for that period of time. Also, high-conflict people have many skills and are everywhere in society, so managing the relationship is often more effective than trying to eliminate or totally avoid such relationships. Managing expectations is especially important.
Avoid raising expectations too high, too fast – whether with co-workers or relationship partners. This includes slowing the closeness of the relationship if the other person wants to move too quickly.
It helps to think ahead about times of high risk, especially if you are changing the nature of a close relationship in a way that could be perceived as abandoning, insulting, dominating, ignoring or betraying the person. And if you are concerned that it will be a time of high risk, get support, consultation and physical help if necessary.
Lastly, consider the possibility that an HCP will over-react to any relationship change behavior with extreme behavior, based on their past pattern. Get support, consultation and people who can help you at times of high risk.
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.