Communicating With A High Conflict Co-Parent

Much of what I write about  relates to helping people co-parent in the best possible way. When both parties are willing, the transition to successful co-parenting can eventually be smooth even when some conflict is present. Usually we find that when the parents can remain child focused there is a rationale applied and a common sense, workable solution eventually arises through coaching.

So what happens when one parent is high conflict?

Well, conflict is what happens ! No matter how calm, passive or unaffected you try to be, conflict will eventually escalate when one parent is hell bent on seeking their sense of revenge or justice. Ultimately you are bullied into submission and compliance, or you self implode. Sometimes both.

I’m not one for internet diagnosis of people, however there are some common themes in high conflict people. Most notably, narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. If you’re dealing with one of these people the chances are you already know the signs and symptoms. In short, NPD people are self centred and consider themselves blameless while they project all the relationship problems onto their target. In doing this they take no responsibility whatsoever. Borderlines tend to be prone to acute bouts of expressed anger and self destruction.

Both of these personality disorders make for very difficult co-parenting arrangements. They seek out conflict rather than seek to resolve it.

Strategies

The hardest part of co-parenting with a high conflict personality is the attachment you must have with them due to your children. However, no one should be subject to continual (or even short term) abuse.

In short, communicating with high conflict co-parents is extremely hard. However, there are ways in which you can minimise the outfall and impact upon yourself. There are some standout do’s and don’ts with communicating with high conflict co-parents.

Bill Eddy is a renowned therapist and lawyer who has working in the separation and family mediation space. He has done extensive work and research with high conflict personalities and I’ve adapted what I have learned here from Bill, along with experience from helping with strategies for dealing with high conflict co-parents.

Don’t

  • try and tell them they are a high conflict personality. This will enrage them and they will become extremely defensive, as is their pattern.
  • engage them in their agenda of conflict or confrontation, particularly verbal. In fact actively avoid it at all costs.
  • never apologise as they take this as your guilt.
  • don’t lay blame or accuse them as they will become defensive.
  • take their criticisms to heart. They are a reflection of them, not you.  

Do

  • Keep in mind that high conflict people are quite predictable. Learn their patterns in order to preempt their strike.
  • Keep communication to the written format or use a mediator, lawyer or other professional to screen and filter what is being said. The high conflict person loves and audience as long as they can lay blame. However they want to be seen as the ‘good’ person so they will do their best to be reasonable with an audience they may be judged by.
  • If you are writing to (or otherwise communicating with) a high conflict person, try and formulate your narrative in a way that does not cause them to be defensive. (This includes laying blame or accusing them of something.)
  • Try and eliminate the word “YOU” from written communication. Instead of “you are making this harder than it should be” try “this is harder than it should be”. Or, instead of “the problem you don’t understand is” becomes “there is a problem here and I’d like to share my views.”
  • Keep solution focused and future focused (high conflict people love to live in the past). No matter how much they try and drag you back to the historical argument, you need to keep the focus on resolution.  
  • Seek help for yourself and create a self care routine. High conflict people have a way of stripping you of your self worth and it’s important you do as much as you can to minimise that.

Recovery

Healing from the trauma of a narcissistic or borderline personality disordered partner or ex-partner can be a long, slow process. You’ve been unfairly shrouded in a sense of shame and guilt that has undoubtedly become pervasive in your thinking. This kind of abuse alters your brain chemistry and the wiring becomes out of alignment with what is considered normal function. You become unable to think clearly, unable to regulate emotions and are over sensitive to fears or threats.

The antidote to this is being able to re-write your story. To immerse yourself with those who demonstrate love, respect and understanding. To spend time doing things you love and things that bring you joy and happiness – even for short moments. As you heal, you will be able to create for yourself a life with a strong sense of belonging. Always reach out if you need support.