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High Conflict Individuals: It's not what you said, it's what they think you said

I’m writing this article specifically for people who are in some kind of relationship with a high conflict individual. When I talk about these types of people, high conflict is the bottom line, virtually everything ends in some kind of argument or fight. You may be in a relationship with this person, they may be your partner or you may be divorced or separated from them. If you have had children with a high conflict individual, you have probably become acutely aware of how difficult it can be to co-parent with these types. If you share custody with an HCI, you probably know what a nightmare it can be. I’ve written a lot of other articles about HCI’s and so I will hope that you will refer to some of those other articles about them and personality disordered types as a I usually find that they are at the heart of these complicated issues.

This article is specifically about HCI’s and why they are so difficult. I write these kinds of articles because my goal is to help do what I can to make life easier for you but mostly any kids that might be involved in your situation. Whether you like it or not, these issues almost always trickle down to kids and you may have found that your efforts to shield them from the conflict has been mostly futile. If you are in one of these situations, you know exactly what I mean when I say that it’s not what you said, it’s what they think you said that usually sets things off. This is or was likely true in your relationship with them. The relationship is like an emotional minefield where you walk on eggshells; each step is taken cautiously because you know there could be an explosion. Trying to navigate these emotional minefields is nothing short of exhausting and riddled with anxiety. The problem, once again, isn’t what you may have said, it’s what they think you said. Allow me to explain:

HCI’s have what I call an emotional membrane or lense around them and all information passes through this emotional lense where it is bended and refracted. The problem with this is that almost everything is warped and distorted. You could say “we’re low on milk” and what they warp that into is a statement about them being a terrible person, partner or parent and become angry over how abusive and mean you are. It gets worse when they funnel constant messages to their partners that they need to be more sensitive, considerate and tell them that they need to work harder about watching what they do and say. This is really the crux of the difficulty that comes with HCI’s and I become more concerned with these types when they have children. As much as we would like to think that children would be spared from this toxic and abusive pattern, it doesn’t work that way. People with a disorder aren’t able to turn it on and off depending on who they are around. I’ve encountered situations where, for example, a kid may tell their high conflict parent that they need new shoes and it becomes warped and distorted. Remember, it’s not what the kids said to them, it’s what they think the kids are saying to them. A request for new shoes could be easily distorted into a statement where the HCI feels criticized or blamed, even by their own children. I know it sounds crazy, but if you’ve encountered it, you know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes, these distortions can be a bit extreme to the point of near grandiosity and/or paranoia. It’s not uncommon for an HCI to believe that there is some kind of grand conspiracy against them and even small discrepancies in their day to day life can be blown up into major efforts of sabotage against them. These distortions also seem to be amplified in cases of divorce or just when the relationship ends. Again, I know there are many people out there that know what I’m talking about. If you thought they were chaotic, unstable and high conflict before, divorce will only increase this factor. The distortions will only become worse for one simple reason, you are now the enemy. If you’re still in a relationship or marriage with an HCI then you probably expend a lot of effort and energy into working to perfect or modify everything you say or do in an attempt to be more perfect or do things correctly only to have this blow up in your face. In truth, I have yet to encounter a single case in which someone has been able to make their responses perfect enough to avoid explosions. So what do we do about this problem?

I work with a lot of clients on a communication method that is intended to decrease the power struggles by decreasing how much or how badly things are distorted. It takes work and practice to get good at. When I was a kid there was a game called othello, I’m sure it’s still around but I remember the commercial that had this old sage who would say “Othello, a minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” This technique is similar and is built on the socratic questioning technique. The bottom line is responding or extending communication through the form of asking good questions. Good questions are usually subjected to far less distortions. It’s actually a great technique to learn and use in all relationships in life including work, family, friends, and especially angry exes. I highly recommend adopting this technique, especially when you have a high conflict person in your life. Most of my clients report that conflict decreases while productive communication increases.


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