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The Destructive Nature of High Conflict Personalities

Jennifer Hargrave (JH): It is very difficult to be married to somebody who has a high conflict personality. As a divorce attorney, Abby Ewing knows how destructive high conflict personalities can be on family relationships. She is experienced in dealing with high conflict personalities in divorce. Abby is frequently recognized by her peers. She’s received awards such as Best Lawyers, Texas Super Lawyers, and D Magazine. And she’s here today to share with us her insight and wisdom. Welcome, Abby.

Abby Ewing (AE): Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

JH: Thank you for agreeing to come and talk about high conflict personalities.

AE: Yeah. You’re welcome.

Definitions and Experiences

JH: What, when we talk about that term, what does that mean to you? What is a high conflict personality?

AE: So for me, in my experience, it can mean a whole host of things I think, but the traits that you commonly see as a family lawyer are people with cognitive distortion, right? So these are people who they feel victimized, they have intense emotions, they sometimes have an aggressive energy and they also lack insight into their own behavior. And that one can be really difficult in the context of divorce or other family law.

Gender Perspectives in High Conflict Personalities

JH: In your experience, do you see more men or women with high conflict personalities?

AE: I think I see both. I think there are certain traits maybe that I’ll see more in men than in my female clients who might be a high conflict personality, but it definitely is not gender-specific.

JH: I agree with you. I think, I think it comes, it is gender-neutral. I mean, yes. You definitely see certain high conflict personalities in women. And then we see high conflict personalities in men and sometimes they partner together and that can be especially challenging.

Planning and Strategy for Divorcing a High Conflict Spouse

AE: Anytime you’re going to embark on a divorce, you need to have a plan. But I think for these people who are married to high conflict personalities, they have to have maybe two plans like a plan A and a plan B, and they need to make sure they’re getting information before they even utter a word about the divorce. Because I think with what happens with a lot of high conflict personalities is when they are told or they receive the papers and they understand the divorce is going to go forward, they might hide information, move money from one account to the other. So they really need to make sure they’re getting all of that information beforehand.

Tactical Approaches in Divorce Filings

AE: We’re not making any claims that are going to set that person off. You can always amend. We’re probably not going to want to serve them with the papers. We’re probably gonna want to deliver them with a letter from the attorney explaining that we’re going to try and keep this process amicable and that we’re not out for blood.

JH: I think that’s really wise. And it also is probably very counterintuitive for people. They may be thinking, “oh my gosh, if I’m going to divorce my high conflict spouse, I need to put all the stuff in the first petition,” which is what starts the divorce.

AE: Right. Well then just, you know, talking in terms of where we’re going to start. If we start here, we’re never going to come down. We’ve escalated the situation. We’ve kind of triggered this high conflict personality’s characteristics that aren’t maybe so helpful.

The Role of Collaborative Divorce

JH: Have you seen collaborative divorce be successful with high conflict personalities?

AE: Yes, I think it can be very successful. I think the difficulty is getting that person to want to engage in the process from the outset. But I think that it works really well. It always depends on what is this person’s particular trait that’s problematic. So if you have somebody who maybe has narcissistic tendencies, collaborative divorce is a nice place for them to be able to air all of their concerns.

JH: Well, let’s talk about that because I think that that is something that’s really counterintuitive for a lot of people. They think, “if I am married to somebody who’s high conflicts, I’m gonna need the power of the court to come in and help balance things out.” How do you find the balance of power dynamics can work in a collaborative divorce?

AE: Right? Sometimes I think that’s true that you have a person where the collaborative divorce process isn’t going to really impose the consequences that need to be imposed on that person to get them in check. But normally, I think the great thing about the collaborative divorce process is that people who have high conflict personalities are difficult to negotiate with. They tend to want to push their spouse into a specific position. And so having a kind of team approach really helps shift that power imbalance.

JH: Exactly. And the thing is, the legal system itself is sort of designed for them. It gives them an audience. It gives them a forum to harass and increase the conflict. And I think there’s so much wisdom in not going there right off the bat.

Watch the Full Interview

Thank you for tuning into our discussion on high conflict personalities in divorce.

Check out the full interview here.