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5 Signs Your Divorce Will be High Conflict (And How to Survive)

01/29/2014 12:33 EST | Updated 03/31/2014 05:59 EDT

Divorce is ranked above going to jail or losing a family member as the second most stressful life event you can face. In fact, the death of a spouse or child are the only events considered more stressful. And yet, this doesn't even take into account what divorce is like for those who are separating from someone with a high-conflict personality.

What is a high-conflict personality? From a psychological perspective we consider these personalities to be narcissistic or borderline or anti-social, although this is not about diagnosing your ex-spouse. It's about understanding the signs and behaviours to look for, and then taking steps to protect yourself.

1. Deceitfulness -- Deceitfulness is one of the primary traits of high-conflict personalities (HCPs). When their feelings don't fit the facts, HCPs tend to construct 'facts' to fit with their feelings so that their emotions make sense. What you may face are inaccuracies, fabricated events, or blatant lies about you. Often these false accusations are made with highly emotional and inflammatory language as there are no actual 'facts' to make their case.

2. Blaming -- No matter what you do, or what your ex-spouse does, you find you are to blame. If your ex-spouse regularly lashes out at your children, it is still somehow your fault, even if you aren't actually there. HCPs cannot face faults in themselves and instead project them onto others. It is not uncommon for a HCP to be highly aggressive, even abusive, and yet project these traits onto you.

3. Manipulation of others -- HCPs have a need to be seen as superior (i.e. the better parent) or as the 'innocent victim'. It is not uncommon for you to discover that your ex-spouse has contacted friends, family (even yours), teachers, or anyone who will listen to tell their distorted side of the story and persuade them to take their side. This also feeds the HCP's constant need for attention.

4. Uncompromising -- You find it difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate even reasonable separation terms. HCPs have great difficulty compromising due to unconscious fears of abandonment or inferiority. They cannot accept 'losing' or not getting their way. You may even find that once you compromise on your position, then that becomes the HCPs new starting point for negotiation, with no regard for the concessions you've already made.

5. Lack of Empathy -- HCPs will do whatever they need to get what they want. If your ex-spouse wants sole custody, you may see fabricated examples of your negligence or mistreatment. Or your ex-spouse may attempt to alienate the children, even if that is clearly not in their best interests. The interests or needs of anyone else -- even your children -- will not get in the way of a HCP pursuing what they want, especially if what they want is to punish you or seek revenge.

Divorcing from this personality type is not about striving for harmony, seeking mediation, or finding a way to work together as co-parents. It's about being pro-active, strategic, protecting yourself and your children (as much as possible), and not letting it take over your life:

- Empower yourself by documenting everything. Also realize that you can decide which battles to take on. Every little issue will be turned into a conflict or drama, but you don't have to engage in every one. Choose the issues that matter most.

- Stay grounded by not getting pulled into the drama. Don't be overly reactive, remembering that the more you intensify the emotions in a situation, the more that will feed into the HCP's desire for attention.

- Seek support by finding an experienced lawyer who understands high-conflict personalities. Also seek therapy support to deal with inevitable feelings of grief, anger, and fear.

- Remain aware of possible extreme behavior by your ex-spouse, especially at times of perceived threat (i.e. before a court appearance). Also keep in mind that if your ex-spouse suddenly changes his or her tone or story, or promises to be cooperative, then he or she probably wants something from you. Be wary and proceed with caution.

- Surrender fantasies that your ex-spouse will fundamentally change. He or she will not. Also be prepared to accept the reality of parallel parenting if there are children involved.

- Enforce boundaries to protect yourself and your life. Communicate only when necessary and then do so briefly by email. Set aside specific times in your week to deal with these issues (email responses or legal consults) so it does not consume all your time and attention (i.e. Keep weekends HCP-free).

- Maintain perspective by remembering the divorce is only one aspect of your life and not your whole life. HCPs will try to keep you from moving on with your life, even after the legal case ends -- and especially if you have children -- so don't give them that power.

- Cultivate mindfulness or other coping strategies as a way to deal with the extreme stress. Try and stay present, open and flexible, and be as kind to yourself as possible... you will need it.

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