Can You Get a Difficult Person to Change?

© 2014 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. “Just get over it,” I remember the judge saying in court to a divorced man and woman, who had returned to court for the umpteenth time arguing about what he did and what she did with their children recently. “I got divorced ten years ago, and I got over it! And my 20-year-old son got over it, too!” the judge exclaimed. Unfortunately, some people don’t “just get over it” – even years later. Why is this? What should they do? And what should professionals do to help them – and their children? This article aims to explain why grieving and healing are extremely difficult for high-conflict people and why focusing on their emotional healing may be a mistake, whereas other approaches may really benefit them. The Grieving Process Fifty years ago, in her classic book On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross explained five stages of the grieving process that people go through when facing the deaths of those close to them and when facing our own. Since then, we have learned that the same grieving process applies when facing any major loss, including loss of a marriage (divorce), loss of a job, loss of a house and loss of a good friend who moves away. Even the person who initiates leaving a job or a partner of many years goes through the grieving process. Here are the five stages she identified: Denial: “It can’t be happening to me. I don’t believe it. It can’t be true.” Anger: “If it is happening, I’m mad as hell and I’m going to fight this all the way.” Bargaining: “If I just really do this different and that different, can I avoid this loss?” Depression: “Now I really feel sad. I don’t want to go out; talk to anyone. I cry a lot.” Acceptance: “I realize she’s not coming back and it still hurts a little, but doesn’t stop me in my tracks anymore.” You can see how this can apply to many situations over a lifetime, and how we need to grieve and heal to move forward in our lives. Yet this is where high-conflict people have a lot of trouble. High-Conflict People From my observations and studies over the past decade and a half, high-conflict people (“HCPs”) seem to be stuck in a narrow range of behavior that includes: A preoccupation with blaming others Lots of all-or-nothing thinking Unmanaged emotions (including rigidly controlled in some cases) Extreme behaviors (that 90% of people would never do, even under stress) They also seem to have some traits of personality disorders, if not a full personality disorder. Personality disorders also have some of the above characteristics, except that many of them are not preoccupied with blaming anyone in particular. The ones who are HCPs appear to be the ones with a “target of blame” who they are willing to attack verbally, physically, financially, legally and/or publicly.  They are generally stuck in this behavior and can’t focus on themselves and changing their own behavior. They are repeatedly stuck in the past, defending their past behavior and criticizing others’ past behavior – and talking about this with anyone who will listen. It’s as if they cannot grieve and heal the past, which causes them to increase conflicts rather than resolving them. That’s why they’re called “high-conflict people.” But don’t call them this; they will attack you back – sometimes for months or years. Remember, they easily get stuck. This is true no matter how smart, beautiful, experienced and skilled they are at their jobs and other successful endeavors. It’s all about close relationships. Why Can’t They Heal? HCPs seem to get stuck in the Anger stage of the grieving process. It really seems that they can’t handle the Depression stage, with its full-blown sadness and sense of vulnerability. They seem psychologically defended against having those feelings by staying angry and preoccupied with others – sometimes holding on to them through extended conflicts. (We see high-conflict divorce cases that last many more years than the marriage – fighting over children, past finances, etc.) My belief is that this has to do with “attachment theory” and that many personality disorders (or those with just traits) are really attachment disorders. This means that in early childhood they did not have a secure attachment with a parent (or other person) which is necessary to develop many skills and capacities – including a sense of safety to feel extreme emotions and manage them. Infants gain emotion management through mirroring their parents’ (and other attachment figures) management of emotions. For example, when a baby is screaming bloody murder and Mom or Dad come over and say soothing words in a comforting tone of voice, the infant slowly calms himself or herself down to match the mood of the parent. This happens over and over again when a child has a “secure attachment” with one or more parents (and other attachment figures, such as grandparents, siblings, etc.). But imagine if the parent came over to the child who was screaming and slapped the child and yelled at the child. The child’s upset will grow and the child will feel even more distressed and not learn to calm him or herself, and will not feel safe to share upset feelings. “Dissociation” is the term that mental health professionals use to describe when such an infant shuts off his or her feelings and goes into a trance-like state, if their distress becomes too extreme. Many people with personality disorders describe experiencing this state of dissociation (although they may not remember what happens during it) and many therapists have seen clients momentarily drift off in the middle of discussing very upsetting issues – as though they had left the room and were no longer there. This is especially true for people who were physically and/or sexually abused as young children. It’s an extreme coping mechanism. It also may become a daily way of dealing with emotional and physical neglect.

Child Alienation: “1000 Little Bricks”

© 2013 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. [An excerpt from the book Don’t Alienate the Kids! Raising Resilient Children While Avoiding High Conflict Divorce] In this chapter, I explain a theory of  child alienation that I have developed called “1000 Little Bricks.” It’s based on three Cultures of Blame and the little behaviors (bricks) that children absorb from them. When these three cultures reinforce each other, it is a “perfect storm” which can build alienation. This is in contrast to what cultures are supposed to do by protecting children and building their resilience for the future. If any one of these stopped being a Culture of Blame, I believe there would be much less child alienation: 1.  A family Culture of Blame, when a high-conflict parent is involved. 2.  Today’s family court Culture of Blame, which pits parent against parent in an unnecessary contest over who is the “all-good” parent and who is the “all-bad” parent in a divorce, and which involves many family members and professionals who become emotionally “hooked” and feed the escalating conflict. 3. Our society’s increasing Culture of Blame, which turns complex problems into the simple blaming of individuals, with lots of all-or-nothing commentaries, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors repeated endlessly through the news media, entertainment and politics, which feed alienation on a larger scale and influence children’s personality development. I will also introduce the brain science which explains more about how children learn and absorb these Cultures of Blame, without anyone intending it or even realizing it. It is similar to the way that children learn prejudice. Cultures define desirable behavior, what is undesirable but tolerated, and what is unacceptable. Cultures define values, status, and punishments for their people. This is all learned, but without anyone specifically teaching it. Everyone absorbs their culture every day through thousands of comments, jokes, images, whispers, styles, gossip, accusations, praise for heroes, disparaging remarks for villains, and social punishments for those who violate the values or the power structure of the culture. A Family Culture of Blame A Culture of Blame from Day One: High-conflict parents (especially borderlines and narcissists, as described in Chapter One) naturally split people into “all-good” and “all-bad.” From birth, children of HCPs learn about this. For example, Aunt Mary has been the HCP’s favorite sister for many years. But then she goes on a trip and doesn’t invite the HCP. The HCP is offended and sees Aunt Mary now as “all-bad.” The children learn to take the HCP’s side against Aunt Mary, and this calms down the HCP parent. Then, the HCP gets in a dispute with the neighbor. The children know what to do. It’s automatic. And the other parent, who may not be an HCP, has also learned that you don’t argue with an angry HCP when he or she is splitting people into all-good or all-bad. If you do argue with splitting, then YOU become a target and treated as all-bad too. So the children have learned the family Culture of Blame: The HCP parent is unpredictable and frightening. This parent’s intense anger and blame can flare up at any moment. The family solution with an HCP parent is usually to tolerate and adapt to this inappropriate behavior – until it becomes intolerable. Most families don’t have this Culture of Blame within the family. But for HCPs, it’s all about family – the hated people are usually those they used to love, because of splitting. The people they are preoccupied with the most are usually close family members, such as the other parent, one of the children (often HCPs treat one child as “all-good” and another as “all-bad”), one of the grandparents, or other relatives. The children are used to disliking and criticizing one or more of their family members. So it’s a natural progression to absorb the HCP’s emotions about the other parent in a divorce. The child doesn’t have to be given any instructions. The whole family culture has been doing this for years – including the HCP’s relatives. And the non-HCP parent has learned to tolerate it, so the children learn to tolerate it too. It’s contagious and mostly non-verbal. Right and Left Brains The human brain is divided into a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere. Each of these “brains” process different information at the same time. The left hemisphere is active in processing language, words and details. When the left hemisphere is working on solving a problem, you may be conscious of thinking about it. The left brain is more active with problem-solving tasks and planning for the future. The right hemisphere is more focused on the big picture, non-verbal behavior, and people’s moods. It is very attentive to other people’s tone of voice, facial expressions and hand gestures. If someone in your environment is especially angry or fearful, your right brain will pick up this anger and fear, and your body may tense up before you consciously know why. For the first three years of life, children’s right brains are dominant and developing rapidly, in comparison to their left brains. This means that they are learning every- thing based primarily on their parents’ tone of voice, facial expressions, hand gestures and the emotional messages they are constantly sending out. They become highly familiar with their parent’s regulation of their own emotions and their general level of peacefulness or anxiety. They learn what triggers anxiety in their parent and what calms them down. This is all learned before they really understand language. Their parent’s body language is really all they need to know. They learn the family’s Culture of Blame very quickly and thoroughly – and nonverbally and unconsciously. With an HCP parent, blaming someone becomes natural. Children quickly learn who’s powerful and who’s not in their family culture. They learn whose moods dominate everyone else’s behavior. It’s natural to want to be on the winning side – for survival. Children are on the road to becoming alienated against several people in their lives well before their