Divorce and High-Conflict People: Borderlines, Narcissists, Histrionics, Sociopaths and Other Persuasive Blamers
I’m a few days away from being divorced from my spouse.
I’ve been married for a most of eight years and up until about 9 months ago I have felt I am crazy… actually some days I still do. My spouse isn’t particularly violent but has consistently abused me mentally and emotionally for most of the marriage (constant criticism, control of all finances, isolation from friends and family, etc).
I met my best friend a year and a half ago and she has recently become my girlfriend. I got to really know her well as she was wrapping up the divorce from her Borderline Personality Disorder spouse. He tried to destroy her every way possible. We worked together at the time and she would remark how I looked like a POW or shell shocked most days. Along the way we began to compare notes and I started to recognize that maybe I wasn’t the one who was crazy. She found your site and sent links of specific articles. For once in my life it was like someone knew what it was like to be married to my spouse.
My spouse has, up until just recently, been pretty well-behaved, however now that there is a clock ticking we’ve had plenty of engagement time to discuss the details of our divorce agreement… go figure it’s never exactly right regardless how many times we modify the language and it’s always my fault. My tolerance for her has shrunk considerably and I regularly find myself feeling worthless, unloved and apologizing for anything and everything that goes awry much the way I did when I was living with her.
Why does she persist in dragging this out? Why is she being so aggressive, punitive and malicious? What recommendations do you have for how to extricate myself from these sorts of feelings… and how do I learn to not react to her verbal attacks in the first place?
What you’re describing is typical divorce behavior for Cluster B Personality Disordered individuals (Borderlines, Narcissists, Histrionics and Antisocials) or, what attorneys refer to as High-Conflict People (HCP). Not all HCPs have full-blown personality disorders, but they share many of their traits such as emotional reasoning, all-or-nothing thinking, minimizing the positive while maximizing the negative, chronic blaming and an inability or unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions. William Eddy, LCSW, Esq, has written two helpful books on the subject:
- High Conflict People in Legal Disputes
- SPLITTING: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing a Borderline or Narcissist
High-Conflict People: The Issue Is Rarely the Issue.
Eddy believes that most conflict is personality driven. This means that it’s not the amount of money at stake, who gets primary custody or who left the toilet seat up or down. Your ex is prolonging the divorce for a reason and it’s probably not about the amount of support or who gets the wedding china. In high-conflict cases, the stated issue typically isn’t the real issue. The real issue is the personality (or personality disorder) of one or both parties.
“Not everyone with a personality disorder becomes a high-conflict personality (HCP). Only those who are also Persuasive Blamers seem to become HCPs. Persuasive Blamers persuade others that their internal problems are external, caused by something else or someone else. Once others are persuaded to get the problem backward, the dispute escalates into a long-term, high-conflict situation. One that few people other than persuasive blamers can tolerate” (Eddy, 2006, p. 29).
Not all Cluster Bs are persuasive Blamers, which makes their craziness, distortions and bald faced lies easier to detect, contain and redirect in a dispute. “It’s only the Persuasive Blamers of Cluster B who keep high-conflict disputes going. They are persuasive, and to keep the focus off their own behavior (the major source of the problem), they get others to join in the blaming” (Eddy, 2006, p. 30). This is why many Narcissists, Borderlines, Histrionics and Antisocials effectively employ smear campaign and mobbing tactics when they target someone—be it a spouse, attorney, court evaluator or therapist. By blaming others for everything that’s wrong in their lives they keep the focus off the real problem; themselves. This is nothing more than a primitive ego defense mechanism at play.
Divorce Is the Ultimate F— You.
When a man divorces, he’s basically saying, “Living with you is so intolerable, I’m willing to risk giving up half or more of my assets and losing my home and children to be free of you.” (*Please note: 70% of US divorces are initiated by women and women are typically the “winners” in state-run Divorce Lotto Court. They typically walk away with half the assets even if they didn’t contribute a dime to the marriage and get primary custody even if they’re not the better parent). Most women who divorce don’t stand to lose as much as most men). Therefore, divorce is the ultimate narcissistic injury and ultimate abandonment. Even if the HCP/Cluster B/Persuasive Blamer initiates the divorce, they still view it as a zero sum/winner take all/destroy the other party battle to the death.
According to Eddy, High-Conflict People, Borderlines, Narcissists, Persuasive Blamers—whatever you want to call them—are driven by 4 primary fears:
- the fear of being ignored
- the fear of being belittled (includes the fear of public exposure)
- the fear of being abandoned
- the fear of being dominated (includes the fear of losing control—control over you, control over money/assets and control of herself)
The divorce process triggers these fears and pushes all of their hot buttons, which explains why many escalate their controlling and abusive behaviors during a divorce. Divorce represents a final loss of control and means that their flaws and faults might be exposed to friends, family, mental health professionals and the court system. Most Cluster Bs fight tooth and nail against having their abusive traits and other nasty qualities exposed. Now that you’re no longer together, you know too much about her and, therefore, must be discredited and destroyed so that no one will suspect that she’s actually the one with the problems. This is her logic.
Why Do They Drag Out the Divorce Process?
1. “Blamers are not usually good at negotiation and other forms of compromise. They have all-or-nothing thinking, they personalize even the most minor issues, and they may feel that giving in to the other party’s requests is a form of abandonment or threat to their superiority” (Eddy, 2004, p. 36). This type of individual sees compromise as losing and people who are willing to accept a fair compromise as losers. Eddy (2004, p. 36) makes this interesting diagnostic distinction: “Borderlines feel that they must refuse compromise to avoid feeling abandoned. Narcissists feel that they are superior and should receive more.” Although, I think in most cases both of these cognitive distortions are often at work.
This is also is why so many of them have a difficult time articulating what they want in terms of a settlement at the onset of the divorce process. She’s reluctant to agree to anything because she wants to extract the maximum amount from you. “If he’s willing to give me this, maybe I can gouge another pound of flesh.” The actual monetary amount/degree of custody is meaningless; if she gets more, in her mind it means she wins and is right and will be viewed by others as the winner who’s in the right.
“When you are negotiating with a Blamer, they will pressure you to give them much more than a court would give them because they were abandoned or are superior” (Eddy, 2004, p. 30). Mediation and other collaborative techniques are difficult for severe Blamers because “they cannot handle compromises, they cannot listen to ideas that conflict with their reality, the abandonment feels too intense, and they cannot handle the combination of physical closeness and emotional distance (ending their lives together while sitting together)” (Eddy, 2004, p.30).
2. The divorce process gives individuals like your wife a raison d‘être. Women with these issues often have no interests (other than controlling you), identity or personal/career goals. Divorce and annihilating you becomes their new full-time job. Even after you both agree to a settlement, individuals like your wife will have their attorney try to revise and rewrite the terms in an effort to prolong the process and the attention she receives from it, to get more than her fair share, and to maintain her control over you by not letting you get on with your life. If you think about it, it’s actually pretty pathetic. People who are in their right minds want to end this adversarial and emotionally and financially costly process as quickly as possible, not prolong it.
3. High-conflict people feed off of conflict and chaos. It gives them a buzz. For many, the only way they know how to relate to others is through aggression, blame and playing the victim. Once it ends, what does she have left? Nothing.
4. Oppositional withholding. This is more leftover baggage from your marriage. Many of these women are withholding partners. Meaning, if there’s something you really want, she doesn’t want you to have it. The more you want something, no matter how insignificant and small, the more she finds reasons that you shouldn’t have it or actively obstructs you from getting it. In this respect, these women are like oppositional, defiant toddlers. The more you want to wrap up the divorce; the more she digs in her heels and tries to delay it.
Like you, many of the men I work with often become stonewalled by their exes just as they near the finish line. These men are neither personality disordered nor high-conflict; they just want to be done. Every time they get close to a settlement, their ex derails, blows up or delays the process by not responding to letters, canceling appointments, making new allegations and demands and/or walking out on settlement talks with mediators, evaluators, etc. This is a Cluster B trait that is appropriately called derailing.
In your case, derailing is an attempt to intentionally try to destroy the progress you’ve made in your settlement talks. For example, during negotiations, you’re able to get through most of the issues calmly and reasonably. The process seems to be going well and you’re hopeful that you’ll be able to resolve the matter. Once you’re close to an agreement, your ex jumps to a hot button topic (e.g., having to support herself, your new girlfriend, your family whom she hates, accusations that you’re hiding money—it could be anything).
“The topic is usually one in which somehow something that you have done, are thinking of doing or [she] believes you have done or are thinking of doing. The rationality of the accusation, despite any information to the contrary, is irrelevant. Then [she] escalates that topic to its worst, going into a rage” (bpd411.com). This may end in her storming out of the session and reneging on items to which she previously agreed. This behavior destroys any progress that’s been made and puts you back at square one.
Tangenting is a less explosive form of derailing, but with the same end result. For example, when you’re just about to reach a solution, your ex will “change the subject, go sideways to a related, but different topic and refuse to return to the original issue. She may even project and blame you for obstructing the process, which is just another a side topic to keep you from returning to the original topic and its solution. These side topics are also never resolved.
“There is some logic to the connection between the topics that, on the surface, appears rational.” This second topic is usually a recurring one that makes you the target of more blame. These make convenient side issues when a solution is too closely approached. When you attempt to bring the discussion back to the original topic, [she] will usually accuse you of being too controlling or that you think the world revolves around you” (bpd411.com). Both tangenting and derailing are often used to prolong the divorce process during negotiations and anything else this type of person wants to avoid—like discussing your feelings, your needs or how she hurt you when you were still together.
So What Can You Do?
Attorneys and mediators approximate that they accomplish 5 minutes of work for every hour spent with a high-conflict person. This is all well and good, but legal services aren’t cheap and why should you get stuck footing the bill because your ex has issues?
1. Tell your attorneys what your bottom line is and stick to it. Let him or her communicate with your ex, since it doesn’t seem that you’re able to bring this to a conclusion with her. She is probably too stuck in the role of opposing and punishing you for you to make any headway with her.
2. Maximize any leverage you have. These women tend to be transactional in their relationships, so you might want to find something to withhold from her in order to get a more equitable outcome. Also, stop being so damned reasonable. Being fair and reasonable doesn’t compute for this type of individual. When you’re generous and give away more than you’re obligated, she sees it as a greenlight to push for even more. She doesn’t think, “Wow, he’s being so generous. I’ll take it.” She thinks, “Sucker. I’ll bet I can get even more if he’s willing to agree to this.”
You are probably a very nice guy and want to be seen as a nice, reasonable guy. She knows this and is working you. The reality is that no matter what you do, your ex thinks you’re a jerk. When you’re reasonable or make concessions to her demands, she thinks you’re a stupid jerk. No matter what you do, she’s going to see you as the bad guy, so do what you need to do protect your best interests. High-conflict people/bullies only respect people who push back hard. Don’t sink to her level, but it may be time to play hardball, which is also probably best handled by your attorney.
3. Choose your battles. Determine what’s most important to you, but don’t let her know. Remember, most of these types withhold to punish. Pretend like you don’t care about the things you care about most and care about the things you don’t really care about. This doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a shot.
4. Get it in writing. If you finally do reach a settlement via mediation or another process, don’t let her leave without signing something! Don’t give her time to think it over. Whenever possible, get commitments from her in writing right then and there. Verbal agreements from this kind of person are meaningless. Often, their written agreements are also meaningless since many Narcissists, Borderlines, Histrionics and other high-conflict types believe they’re exempt from the rules by which the rest of us mere mortals abide. At least if you get something from her in writing you’ll have some legal recourse if she later tries to obstruct or make new demands.
5. Practice emotional detachment. As for dealing with your emotions and not reacting to her verbal jabs; don’t engage (easier said than done, of course). I suggest you read the following articles on no contact and emotional detachment and try to put the techniques into practice:
- The No Contact Rule: Ending an Abusive Relationship
- The No Contact Rule: Committing to It and Making It Work
- Emotional Detachment: When the No Contact Rule Is Not an Option
- Bad Relationships: Change Your Role and the Rules of Engagement
- More on Emotional Detachment: Surviving an Ongoing Abusive Relationship
Hang in there. You’re in the home stretch.
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