The Best Course of Action for High Conflict Couples

Recently, I had an interview with Bill Eddy on my radio show Dialogue on Divorce. Bill is a lawyer, therapist, mediator and a president of the High-Conflict Institute based in San Diego, California.  As a lawyer, he is a certified Family Law specialist in California where he has represented clients and family for 15 years and provided divorce mediation service for over 20 years. He’s written several book including High-Conflict People and Legal Disputes and Splitting, Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder and BIFF, Quick Responses to High-Conflict People.

Bill focuses on high-conflict disputes, which tend to include either one or both of the parties with a high-conflict personality, a pattern of increasing conflict, and not resolving things.  His general principle is that high-conflict people need a non-adversarial process in order to really resolve their disputes. For the most high-conflict people, it helps to resolve their dispute in a process that does not encourage that behavior. It’s really worth trying the non-adversarial approaches first, mediation and collaborative divorce even in the high-conflict cases.  

Be prepared to go to court if you’re taken to court by the other person or if nothing else works, but work hard first at trying to resolve a dispute out of court.  If you have a high-conflict co-parent or partner, court escalates their adversarial thinking and puts them, in a sense, up against the wall.  That’s where we see high-conflict people starting to resort to false allegations, physical abuse, child abuse, alienating a child, et cetera.  That dynamic is less intense if they’re in a mediation or collaborative setting because they’re not feeling personally attacked.

Now, no one likes to be personally attacked.  High-conflict people are extremely sensitive to that, even though they may insult and do negative things.  They have a narrow range of behavior and you want to keep it at the most positive end.  The first point is, in almost all cases, try mediation and see if that will work as long as there’s sufficient protections for emotional and physical safety.

In my experience, sometimes individuals will wonder if they will have enough financial protection in the mediation process. If their partner is high-conflict and always gets their way, they may not feel like they will be able to speak up in response to their partner’s hissy fits and will subsequently lose in a communication-heavy process. In response to this concern, Bill advises that it’s important for individuals going through a divorce to have a lawyer who they’re at least consulting with, if not retaining. The value of the knowledge and protection from a lawyer can make up for the facts that most clients or individuals don’t know about. This alone makes it worth at least consulting with a lawyer. Bill encourages people to get at least an hour consultation early on in the process and ask the lawyer, “What do I need to know going into this and how can you help me make proposals and how can you help me say yes or no to the other person’s proposals?”

This session builds in some protection. Although any good mediator will not say you have to sign immediately, they will say you should talk to a lawyer before you make your final decisions.  The protection comes in from having a lawyer who knows what you can and can’t do, knows what the law is.  It also helps to ask a lawyer what they can tell you about a financial adviser.  There’s some good divorce financial analysts out there who can help you know whether you are making good or bad financial decisions. It is important to take the time to make sure that you get education about what you don’t know and that you have an opportunity to really think it through outside of the negotiation session, and that you get the assistance and support that you need to do that.  That can give you the support that you need in order to come to a reasonable resolution. Because informed consent is so key to the non-adversarial processes, it can really help to have these professionals outside of negotiations to work through the nuances of the work and help you access the information you need. For more information, check out my upcoming blog post and be sure you listen to Bill Eddy’s episode of Dialogue on Divorce: High Conflict Couples and Divorce Mediation.