top of page

5 Signs You have a High Conflict Ex

Even though nobody intends or plans on getting a divorce when they enter a new relationship, it’s inevitable for many relationships. I’ve had many clients tell me that they knew they were doing the wrong thing when they got married, which, in a way, is sort of planning on divorce. But divorce gets sticky when there are children involved and unfortunately, the ugliness of divorce almost trickles down to them even when the parents are determined to leave them out of it. When divorce cases involve high conflict individuals (HCI’s), the kids are never left out of it; HCI’s rarely make any effort to leave the kids out of it. As a professional, I’m most concerned about the kids involved and while I want adults to come out of divorces in one piece, the kids often become my primary concern.

When I talk about HCI’s, I am often referring to people who have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) or borderline personality disorder (BPD). This isn’t always true but in extreme cases, one of these personality disorders is the common culprit. If you’ve had children with someone like this and the relationship ends in divorce, you can expect a difficult road. People with NPD and BPD view their ex spouse as the villain and nemesis in life so you can expect to be treated as such. I want you to remember this because you can expect them to defy you and fight you on everything. The other idea that I really want to emphasize here is that for the most part, they are paper tigers. Even though they seem pretty ferocious, they usually only have as much power as you give them and really can’t do a whole lot to actually hurt you. Already I can hear many of you saying, “you don’t know my ex.” That’s true, I don’t know them and while it’s possible that they can do things to harm you in various ways, I would ask you to consider that the opposite may be true as well. Perhaps most threats they pose are not as serious as they seem? Most HCI’s have become quite skilled at putting on a ‘Wizard of Oz’ kind of display where there’s a lot of noise and flame throwers when in reality there’s just a weak old man behind a curtain pulling the ropes and levers. By having good boundaries, you can cut down on the potential harm that they may be able to do you.

I am writing this article for those who wonder if their ex is a high conflict individual. For those of you seeking clarity in this matter. It would be important to know this so that you can adjust your approach to them and how they operate. It’s also important to know this because it will hopefully help reduce the potential harm that they can cause to any kids that are involved. Here are 5 signs that your ex partner may be a high conflict individual:

  1. Everything, including co-parenting, is a power struggle – Like I said before, an HCI will defy you at every turn. If you say black, they say white, if you say yes, they say no. They see all situations as something that they have to win. I’ve seen situations in which the HCI insisted on the kids going to certain school even though there was no bus service and several extra miles distance, just to defy their ex. When they are co-parenting, their actions indicate that they are far less concerned about the well being of the kids and more concerned about winning this perceived power struggle. They tend to view co-parenting as a battle instead of a mutual effort to raise happy and healthy children.

  2. They make really big threats – HCI’s are notorious for making really big threats. And not just to their ex-partners. They are also notorious for doing this with professionals as well. They are known for bullying teachers and sadly, teachers are easy targets because they are basically required to do whatever is necessary to accommodate and please parents. They are also notorious for threatening lawsuits against professionals that do anything against their wishes. They almost always make big threats against their ex-partners. These threats include taking their ex to court and suing them into oblivion, taking the kids away, crushing them with alimony, etc etc. They learn to use fear as a weapon and a tool to get what they want. I argue that they have never learned how to go about things in appropriate, mature ways, they only know how to use manipulative methods. It’s common for them to go directly and immediately to big threats when they don’t get their way. A fellow therapist once confided in me that she was nervous about her new client that she had that evening; the father had already threatened to sue her over the phone even before the first appointment and before meeting in person. Seriously, only a high conflict narcissistic type would do this but I frequently make the argument that HCI’s purposely look for a therapist they can manipulate in a misguided attempt to get a professional on their side.

  3. Nothing is ever their fault – To be fair, most people have some trouble taking some accountability for mistakes and problems. But HCI’s would rather die than admit fault or mistake. They literally have someone to blame for everything that goes badly. More times than not, everything is their ex-partner’s fault. If you are that person, you can expect to absorb serious amounts of blame. Unfortunately, this trickles down to the kids as well. It doesn’t matter how young they are either, kids will absorb the blame.

  4. They seem to make everything about them – I believe that one of the major defining traits of a high conflict individual is their apparent perception that everything is a personal attack. Truly, HCI’s see and anticipate personal attacks at every turn and so they act and respond accordingly. If you approach them about a concern that’s about, say, your child’s poor grade in math and what can be done to help them improve, they jump to the defense because they seem to think they are being attacked when they’re not. “Our child is struggling in math” is interpreted by them to mean “you’re a bad parent.” Even though you’re talking to them about your kid, they will twist it around so that it is something about them. For HCI’s betrayal is the unforgivable sin. When they perceive that there is a massive betrayal, it will likely distort their thinking for the long term because they are so overcome by emotion.

  5. They get angry and lose their temper over almost literally everything – I’m going to accompany this with a note that most people in their life avoid disagreeing with them at all costs in order to avoid major meltdowns. HCI’s have very low tolerance for distress, they are unable to manage even minor hiccups without getting angry. But I also believe that this is a conditioned response and by that I mean that their behavior has been conditioned to get the most effective results in life from having anger explosions. In short, they do it because it works. And if it stopped working, it’s likely that they would have fewer anger explosions though their lack of tolerance for distress would cause them to be highly emotional.

There are many other behaviors that indicate that a person is high conflict and this really is just a start. Be sure to subscribe on my website to get the latest articles when they are published. I write lots of articles on codependency, teen issues, parenting and high conflict individuals. If you need help navigating one of these high conflict situations, give me a call. Expert advice can make all the difference. I can help you devise strategies that help deal with high conflict individuals as well as ways to help kids that involved as well. I hope you will give me the opportunity to work with you and your family.


bottom of page