Is Your Ex Worse Than Charlie Sheen? –A Discussion of High-Conflict People in Divorce

(As originally published on Huffington Post Divorce, March 2, 2011 Headline Article by Alison Patton)

Charlie Sheen keeps telling us he’s special, but is he really that unique? We’ve read volumes about the king of custody battles, Alec Baldwin. We’ve followed the ranting of Mel Gibson, most recently from recorded tapes leaked by his ex-girlfriend during their child support battle.

And now we have Charlie Sheen’s grandiose statements as he fights with CBS executives over his sitcom, Two and a Half Men. As CBS takes steps to “divorce” Sheen from his TV role, Sheen is quoted as saying: “[We’re] definitely at war. The war is that they are trying to destroy my family, trying to take all my money, leaving me with no means to support my family.”

Sound familiar? Divorce court is packed with people just like this, which we call in the biz: “High-Conflict People” (HCPs). If you were married to one, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

HCPs can be charming, gregarious; they can present quite well and seem normal, even pleasant at first. That’s probably why you married this person. It often takes quite a while to figure out who they are.

I was given this list by Bill Eddy, a legal specialist who runs the High Conflict Institute and counsels people on HCPs:

The High Conflict Personality Pattern

1. Rigid and uncompromising, repeating failed strategies
2. Unable to accept or heal from a loss
3. Negative emotions dominate their thinking
4. Unable to reflect on their own behavior
5. Difficulty empathizing with others
6. Preoccupied with blaming others
7. Avoid any responsibility for the problem or the solution

Other common traits of high-conflict people:

• HCPs have extreme emotions and behaviors and often claim they are being victimized by others.

• They create conflict in most, if not all, relationships in their lives–with their spouses, children, neighbors, in the workplace, and sometimes even with strangers.

• Although HCPs do not necessarily enjoy the conflict, they stay connected to people through conflict. They create conflict because in their unconscious, twisted way, that’s how they maintain the relationship.

• Because it is not a conscious process, HCPs don’t see their own behavior. If you confront them on their behavior (for example, say to them “you’re bad-mouthing me to the kids”), they will deny it vehemently and then attack you personally.

If this sounds like your spouse and what you’re dealing with, you’re not alone. HCPs abuse and confuse the entire legal system—the judges, lawyers, mediators and sometimes even the therapists. HCPs can be the perpetrators of the conflict, but will scream bloody murder that their spouse is causing all the trouble.

Here’s how Eddy describes this pattern: In divorce, HCPs become focused on their spouse as the cause of everything that has gone wrong–their spouse is their “target of blame.” HCPs will make convincing accusations against their spouse which the divorce court and lawyers must take seriously: child neglect, sexual molestation, substance abuse, hiding money, stealing assets, interfering with custody time, and so on.

In some cases, the high-conflict person is a blatant liar. In other cases, he/she is paranoid and has a distorted perception of reality — in other words, some HCPs believe their own lies and false reality, which makes them even more convincing to the judges and lawyers trying to ferret out the truth.

HCPs can seem so sincere that it usually takes months or even years before the judge and other legal professionals can identify the personality disorder. The pattern of lies and distortions eventually comes to light, but at a very high personal and financial cost to the honest spouse and the children.

Even a short marriage can turn into years in divorce court when a HCP is on the other side. Eddy has seen 2-year marriages that were litigated for 8 years. HCPs will go back to court over every imaginable conflict they can create. Once the actual divorce is over, HCPs create more conflict over custody and support issues.

Eddy believes that as much as 20% of people getting divorced are HCPs, while others in the field believe the number is as high as 30% — for the simple reason that HCPs undermine all their relationships, repeat their patterns and end up divorcing one or more times.

There are psychological terms for HCPs, such as narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder. However, Eddy said many people in our society have some traits of one of these disorders but not the full-blown disorder. This means that many people in divorce court engage in some of these same destructive behaviors, but it is even harder to nail them down to a full psychological diagnosis and profile.

So what can you do if you’re on the other side of a case with a HCP? Interestingly, the tricks for managing a HCP are the same, whether you’re CBS, Kim Basinger, or the average person dealing with an ex-spouse. You can’t change the HCP or how he/she thinks and behaves. “Trying to argue logic with a HCP will frustrate you and only make it worse,” said Eddy. The trick is to learn practical skills for how to communicate and respond to HCPs, both inside and outside the courtroom.

Eddy’s website provides written materials and resources to help you build a legal case so you can expose the HCP early on. Eddy also has tips to help you in your daily interactions with a HCP, such as how to respond to hostile emails, how to set limits, and how to communicate with him/her in a way that makes clear the consequences to his/her behavior. Being a social worker as well as an attorney, Eddy also talks about developing empathy for the HCP in your life. Eddy doesn’t see HCPs as bad people. He said they cause as much or more distress to themselves as they do to others.

It would behoove CBS and their lawyers to take a page from Bill Eddy and divorce court if they hope to get through this mess with Charlie Sheen. They have no idea what they’re in for.