Divorcing a High Conflict Personality

Narcissism, sociopath, physical, emotional or substance abuse

The secrets and solutions to divorcing a high conflict personality

Divorcing a high conflict personality in California does not have to be the nightmare many spouses fear it may become.

High conflict personalities are common in divorce cases. And although there are specific ways to deal with a high conflict personality, there are differences in both strategy and communication with such types and their attorneys.

Read carefully and we promise by the end of this article, you will be far more knowledgeable about this topic.

It is not enough to know your spouse or ex-spouse is a high conflict personality. You should also know how it may affect your divorce and what you can do about it.

- B. Robert Farzad

Divorcing a high conflict personality versus a narcissist

In our opinion there are subtle differences between a typical high conflict personality and a person who may suffer from narcissistic personality disorder.

We wrote articles on divorcing a narcissist husband and divorcing a narcissist wife, which we think is helpful and you should read. We also wrote an elaborate guide on how to negotiate with a narcissist.

A narcissist has a very high opinion of himself or herself.

Such a personality refuses to see a perspective other than his or her own unless that perspective matches what the narcissist believes is his or her own.

We have even seen a narcissist adopt a perspective and stubbornly stick with it even though earlier the narcissist took a completely different position.

Narcissists are not always high conflict personalities

Narcissists can certainly be high conflict personalities but they are not always that type.

A narcissist can sometimes be passive-aggressive or not aggressive all.

We have encountered narcissists in divorce cases who come across as relatively calm and stable individuals to the outside world but when you ask those who know them well, they will tell you the person is stubborn, inflexible and nearly impossible to have a collaboration with on any topic.

Divorcing a high conflict personality versus a sociopath

We also wrote an article about divorcing a sociopath which we encourage you to check out. We believe it will educate you on this highly difficult personality type.

A sociopath is a man or woman with an anti-social personality disorder, that has little to no regard for the rights of others and that lack of regard is typically without remorse.

Similar to a narcissist, a sociopath may come across stable, reasonable and sometimes play the victim role quite convincingly.

As opposed to a high conflict personality, a sociopath may not actually directly create conflict. Instead, their hallmark is their refusal to do the right thing even when the law requires it.

A sociopath does not care about the law or legal rights, but is not always high conflict

We see this most commonly in enforcement of support orders.

A sociopath will often state he or she does not care what the support order states.

The sociopath will often acknowledge he or she knows what the court order obligates the sociopath to do and the amount of support the sociopath must pay.

However, the sociopath will simply refuse to abide by the court order for reasons that only make sense to the sociopath.

They do not do this in a proper way where they seek a modification of support or set forth actual evidence in support of their position.

Instead, they simply act as if the order does not apply to them, as if it is not an order at all but simply a suggestion they can choose to ignore.

They don't necessarily do this in a high conflict matter but can even do this in a completely passive manner.

Divorcing a high conflict personality versus a borderline or bipolar personality

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) or bipolar personality (the two are not the same) are real psychological conditions that in some people have a debilitating consequence.

Bipolar or borderline personalities can certainly, sometimes be high conflict. But once again, it is not always that way.

Sometimes, medication is helpful in controlling episodes individual may have.

Unfortunately, if the person does not take their medication, that can cause a host of problems for everyone that comes into contact with the person who suffers from one or both of these conditions.

Divorcing a high conflict personality versus a restrictive gatekeeper

You may be surprised we put gatekeeper in this article but we consider restrictive gatekeepers to be more than just overprotective parents. We consider them a unique personality type in divorce cases.

What is a restrictive gatekeeper?

A gatekeeper may be facilitative, protective or restrictive. The ones that are unreasonable and treat children like their possessions are called restricted gatekeepers.

Restrictive gatekeepers are not facilitating in their gatekeeping. They are not protective in their gatekeeping.

Unfortunately, their actions rise to the level of emotional abuse of the children. They can also engage in parental alienation of the children from the other parent.

Restrictive gatekeepers are obsessive and, on the extreme end, delusional

Our experience shows restricted gatekeepers have an obsessive personality whereby they conjure up scenarios in their head of how dangerous the other parent may be to the children.

The more obsessive and delusional they are, the more restrictive they become.

There is the expression that you can lie to other people but you cannot lie to yourself. Restricted gatekeepers appear to be the exception to that expression because they seem to quite convincingly lie to themselves even in the face of evidence directly contradicting their perspective.

Some are fanatical in their belief system. They are "true believers" in their own nonsense which is unsupported by any reasonable evidence or is founded on exaggerated, revisionist history.

Restrictive gatekeepers are histrionic. Unfortunately, they often make false allegations of abuse.

Restrictive gatekeepers often play the victim role and are not always high conflict

Restricted gatekeepers play the victim role. They can be passive, emotional and sometimes quite convincing.

From the outside in, they come across at times as protective and loving parents who just want the best for their children but once you break the initial barrier and really understand what drives them, you quickly learn they house their beliefs on quicksand.

Can they be high conflict personalities? Sometimes and that in part depends on where they are in the divorce litigation cycle. Some start out very passive and first try to convince you they are the victim.

When their stories fall apart through proper litigation, they can become aggressive and suddenly the beast within rears its head.

Some start out as aggressive and highly emotional. But when the story again shatters and everyone sees their claims are either false or highly exaggerated, they become recluse and for analogy sake, crawl into a little ball and try to disappear.

Divorcing a high conflict personality versus a substance abusing addict

We have to mention addiction at some point in anything we write about divorcing a high conflict personality.

Addiction sometimes drives the high conflict in a person's personality.

The biggest difference between a high conflict personality that is not an addict versus one that is an addict is there is a more direct cause and effect.

If the addict can control his or her addiction, seek treatment and become sober, that high conflict in the addict's personality may stop.

So now let's get to divorcing a high conflict personality regardless of the reason for their high conflict style.

Top 3 tips for divorcing a high conflict personality

Divorcing a high conflict personality requires strategic planning and emotional control.

These two factors may make a significant difference to both your stress level and financial stability.

If you lose control of your emotions and let the high conflict personality control your decision-making or you treat a divorce with a high conflict personality like any other divorce, you may be doomed for failure.

Tip number 1 - hire the right attorney for the job

Experience matters. But experience is not just the experience of being a lawyer or even the experience of being a divorce lawyer. It is the experience of dealing with high conflict personalities.

Certain divorce attorneys are not built for litigation. It is not their skill or strength. Unfortunately, too many people learn this too late in the process.

Settlement is ideal. But when you are hiring someone to deal with a high conflict personality in your spouse, you need more than a good negotiator.

You need a good litigator.

Attorneys who are skilled litigators do not spend an unreasonable amount of time trying to resolve issues and then when the issue does not resolve twist their client's arm to settle even though settlement is not in the client's or the children's best interest.

There are too many lawyers like this in family law - lawyers who are not skilled litigators. These lawyers are either built for negotiations or they are just really good salespersons. What they are not is skilled trial attorneys.

What do skilled litigators do when divorcing a high conflict personality?

A skilled litigator will spend a reasonable amount of time to resolve issues but will not spend that time and money on wasted negotiations when it is clear the other side has no intention of being reasonable in those negotiations.

I realize this can be a tough balance to strike. Everyone wants their divorce to resolve amicably. Well, at least everyone who is sane wants that.

However, if your lawyer does not have the skill for a courtroom and you do not have the courage to take the case there if it becomes necessary, you may be doomed when dealing with a high conflict personality.


Because high conflict personalities rarely do the right thing easily. The great majority of the time, you have to give a high conflict personality something serious to lose to get them to cooperate and negotiate in good faith.

Tip number 2 - you must have a specific strategy designed for your case

It is not enough to hire a lawyer to file a divorce petition or respond to one and then "wait and see what happens." That may be a good strategy in an uncontested or low conflict case but it does not work in a high conflict situation.

High conflict personalities "gas-light" their spouse

High conflict personalities like to "gaslight" their spouse.

They like to pick fights directly with their spouse and make the spouse feel like he or she is foolish, uninformed, making a mistake, wasting time and money, etc.

They do this because they realize if they can control their spouse's emotions, their spouse will spin like a top and will have little emotional or fiscal stability in their life.

It is the ultimate goal for the high conflict personality spouse to destabilize the other spouse in every way and as much as possible.

How do you combat the gas-lighting?

How do you combat this? With a plan of action and a strategy that you and your family law lawyer put together.

This strategy means there is a clear plan regarding the discovery process, which is the formal request for information.

There is a clear plan for the disclosure process which is a mandatory part of nearly every divorce where an exchange takes place of assets, debts, income and expenses.

There will also be a clear plan on child custody issues, with offers made and, if rejected, the filing of the proper request for order.

Putting together an initial and backup plan against the high conflict personality

You and your attorney will also put together a plan on settlement offers on financial issues as well as the backup plan if the settlement offer is rejected. That backup plan may include, depending on the case:

This planning and strategy creates an initial plan and then the backup plan depending on what may occur. It is not a "wait and see" approach. It certainly is not a reactive approach.

Proactive litigation strategy disarms the high conflict personality because it takes control away from him or her. The high conflict personality cannot simply terrorize the other spouse while nothing happens on the divorce.

You have confidence, you have a plan and you have clear direction of where your case will go.

Tip number 3 - stabilize your emotions

First, reasonably consider therapy. Rarely have I seen a spouse greatly victimized by a high conflict personality that has not needed some professional counseling.

Therapy can help you deal with the issues that your divorce lawyer cannot - your mental health. If you have a healthy mental state, you are more likely to make smart and logical decisions.

But separate from that, you must learn that your heart is not necessarily your ally throughout the process. It is your head that is your best friend.

Because high conflict personalities like to keep you unbalanced and in an emotional uproar, if you are able to turn off the noise and just focus on the substance of the high conflict communication coming from your spouse, you can dissect nonsense from the remainder of the communication.

High conflict personalities make threats to destabilize you

For example, if your spouse threatens to take the children away from you and leave you penniless, an emotional reaction would likely be to freak out, contact your lawyer, cry, wonder and lament over whether he or she can really do that.

That precedes days or weeks of sadness, anger or frustration over that threat. Homemakers are especially susceptible to such threats.

Don't "react" emotionally. Think instead

Let's assume the higher earning spouse made that threat to the homemaker. Now, let's see what happens if the homemaker breaks that threat down to its core and asks the following questions of himself or herself.

  1. How can a judge take the children away from me when I have been their primary and close to sole caretaker? That cannot be reasonably probable in a family law case in California. My attorney told me about California's best interest standard when the judge makes custody decisions.
  2. How can my spouse leave me penniless when I know I am entitled to support? My attorney told me I am entitled to support and I read the law on it.

That is an example of how a stay at home parent or a lower income earner would use common sense.

Such a person would logically think to themselves about that threat. That parent would then contact his or her lawyer and calmly talk to the lawyer about the threat.

The lawyer will likely put that parent's mind at ease. He or she will explain why the threat is noise and nonsense and remind the parent of the strategy they put together.

Do you see the significant difference between the two approaches? The first allowed the threats to break you down. The second dissected the threat into the hyperbole it was and did not allow it to have one negative impact on you.

There is so much more we could talk about on this page about dealing with and divorcing a high conflict personality. Hopefully, this gave you a good foundation of knowledge about this topic.

Knowledge + courage is how you overcome the fear of divorcing a high conflict personality and start making positive, forward progress.

- B. Robert Farzad

Are you divorcing a high conflict personality?

Do you need help with your case? We are highly experienced in dealing with high conflict personalities.

Please contact us for an affordable strategy session to discuss your specific situation. Our family law firm is highly experienced in handling pending and post-judgment divorce and parentage matters.

Read more informative articles on divorcing certain high conflict individuals. We link to those below.