Divorce is never easy, but it can be hell when you are divorcing a high conflict person. Instead of being in the victim mode or going on the attack, you can change your behavior to reduce conflict and influence how it plays out, according to Megan Hunter, Co-founder of the High Conflict Institute. Hunter was the Family Law Specialist at the Arizona Supreme Court when she discovered divorce professionals shared a common complaint – high conflict cases. “Family law professionals make a lot of money on these cases because high conflict people are hugely litigious – especially those with money,” said Hunter. “I thought their [HCPs] behavior was beyond ridiculous…and yet everyone in the system just kept going along with it. More professional conferences, more training, more money, more conflict. And the children just kept getting damaged/destroyed and getting set up for future relationship failures of their own. I knew I had to find a better way and searched until I found Bill Eddy, who developed the high-conflict personality theory.” Megan Hunter, co-founder of the High Conflict InstituteCOUTOSY OF MEGAN HUNTER“A High Conflict Person (HCP), when their fear is triggered, gets stuck in react mode. They begin to blame, see everything in black and white while experiencing intense emotions. So, whether it’s from a man or a woman, the behaviors are the same. This can be repeated crying jags to violence,” said Hunter. During divorce, advises Hunter, “The best option is to stay out of court and instead use an alternative process such as mediation or collaborative divorce. However, this isn’t always easy or possible when an HCP is on the other side. Their default is to go back to court – often.” The court system isn’t set up for high conflict cases exactly because of its adversarial nature. Because of their weak problem-solving skills, HCPs use the courts for war and solve all their problems. Family law professionals often refer to these people as “Frequent Filers.” While they can annoy the court and even be ruled against, family courts often do not take a proactive stance to limit the use of court for non-essential items. Also, if a HCP teams up with a high conflict lawyer, this behavior can be encouraged. Lawyers bill by the hour and in some cases the other party may be responsible for paying all legal fees.
Megan’s top four tips to reduce conflict for divorce:
Don’t feed negative info about other parent to the child or other family members/friends
Ask for proposals every time there’s a complaint.“I see. That probably is frustrating. Do you have any ideas for solving that?” Or “I see. That probably is a bit of a challenge. What’s your proposal/solution/idea?”
Pick your battles
Remember you are role modeling how to behave – to your kids. How you act is how they’re going to act. Is that how you want their future relationships to go?
Two main tools that Megan Hunter teaches were designed by the co-founder of High Conflict Institute, Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. at the High Conflict Institute. Use an EAR statement: when they say something hostile or blaming, respond with a calm voice, giving eye contact, and a neutral/pleasant face and use Empathy, Attention and Respect. EAR Statement examples:
“That does sound challenging”
“I get what you’re saying”
“I see where you’re coming from”
And then pivot to a question like this: “That does sound challenging . . . I’m happy to problem-solve this with you . . . what are your suggestions/proposals?” In doing this, you calm the react brain and shift them into the calming problem-solving brain. As High Conflict Personalities increase, Megan has found increased reception for her work on how to ... [+]COURTOSY OF MEGAN HUNTERA BIFF Response can be used in written communication. Keep it:
“Start using EAR Statements and BIFF immediately. Both are designed to reduce conflict, or as I like to say it—influence conflict. People have way more influence over conflict than they realize – they just have to get emotionally unhooked, be an adult, and manage the situation like a business relationship instead of an emotional war zone,” said Hunter. “After teaching these skills to divorcing clients, I always ask them if they might have been able to stay married if they’d known these skills while still married. Around 85-90% respond affirmatively.” Using EAR and BIFF is neither being a doormat, trying to appease the other person or pleading with them to change, nor does it escalate the tension by fighting fire with fire. They allow you to treat the divorce as a business transaction while setting ground rules. When a parent is faced with the ultimate nightmare, being denied access to their children, many either respond with anger or beg for access with long emails and texts. A BIFF message by contrast would be:
“Hi Sam, I hope this email finds you well. As per our divorce decree, I will be picking up the kids at 3pm from school. Best, Taylor”
Another common complaint is that the ex-spouse is telling lies about you to the children. In this case Megan recommends asking the child for an example in a non-judgemental way and then to explain how it isn’t true or ask for their opinion. Never respond by name-calling. Demonstrate the reality to your children. It may take time – sometimes years, well into their own adulthood – for them to believe you. They might not ever. Megan’s last piece of advice is sobering. With a High Conflict Person, expect that it’s going to be difficult. Expect that the behaviors may be worse, at least for a while (and you must protect yourself if at risk of violence). Expect that the person won’t change. Expect that they’ll bad mouth you to the kids, your family, their family and all your friends. Expect that they’ll lie about you in court. Expect to be exhausted until you learn the necessary skills for managing the interactions.