Have a High Conflict Ex?

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The thought of opening your ex’s email makes you nauseous. Your heart sinks at every text message “ding.” You flinch a little every time your phone rings.

Sound familiar?

Your phone is always with you, and so, too is the constant feed of vitriol. Digital PTSD is a thing.

Personally, I’d never even heard the term “High Conflict Divorce” before I was 2 years into one.  In the beginning, the mental exhaustion of co-parenting with an emotionally abusive ex whose medium is electronic and whose capacity for blame, bitterness and victim-hood seems to know no bounds left me flattened and hopeless.

Every babysitter who forgot to have the kids call was evidence of my “manipulative” and “evil” parenting. All manner of inconsequential things proved I was “junk,” “stupid” and “bi-polar.” If I was out more than twice a week, even for work, I was a “whore,” an “unfit mother” or “sleeping with six different men.” “Six” was a favorite, but it was always a ridiculous number of men I was sleeping with.  Not only none of his business, it was hysterical: A middle-aged woman with very young children, single parenting 98% of the time, with inconsistent income and a bat-shit crazy ex wasn’t as easy a sell as it sounds.

I’m four years in now, and this still all happens, albeit no longer every day. It cycles.

The police have been involved. Court. Therapy, for sure – for both myself and my kids. I’m on my third lawyer, trying to come at the problem a different way.

It’s expensive, all this “ex-management.” Between the therapy and administrating his communications for my lawyer/police/court it has been and continues to be hundreds of dollars and hours of my life, every week. The whole business is spiritually and psychologically grinding.

 

What’s made the biggest a difference in helping me keep glued together? Learning he’s a High Conflict Personality (HCP).  How he acts has a name! HCP’s are remarkably alike and remarkably predictable in their behaviour.

This was a game-changer!  All his insults felt personal –I’m fat/old/worthless ad nauseum. Yet, none of it was personal! He was simply doing what all HCP’s do!

I used to respond emotionally and personally to his attacks, which is exactly what this kind of person wants: to keep you engaged and play puppeteer to your emotions. But as Maya Angelou said, “when you know better, you do better.”

A high conflict person is like an actor playing the part: virtually all of them follow a similar script. That experts in HCP’s, for instance – complete strangers to me – could accurately anticipate his next move, was astonishing. When you can do the same, you get some power back.

HCP’s track your life obsessively. They’re preoccupied with blame. Their emotions are unmanaged and out of proportion with events. They avoid any responsibility for either problems or solutions.

In practice, this looks like hundreds of texts, emails and phone calls every month. They send long emails to work colleagues, family and/or friends to inform them of the “true” you. They may reframe your history together so that you were/are a liar, thief and most likely a cheat. They may work to alienate the kids from you. They may physically threaten and even accuse anyone you dare to date of molesting your kids.

This is my story, and not one thing about it is unique.

Once I understood my ex was a HCP, I understood there were tools to manage him. And they work! They don’t stop his behaviour, but they greatly diminish it. 

The sheer volume texts and emails has dropped off, in part because now I only respond to those ones directly related to the children. I absolutely ignore anything else, (and forward, endlessly, to my lawyer). I keep responses succinct with no “feeling” words; it’s strictly a transmission of information.

I avoid in-person contact as much as possible. Child exchange is done curbside.

I never speak ill of him to the kids, and I never question them about their visits with their dad beyond “did you have fun?” I know they’re grilled by him and I refuse to make them double-agents. Their therapist gets the details and passes on what’s incendiary. I pass that info to my lawyer.

I resist all desire to defend, explain, correct or retaliate to any fresh accusation or challenge, because there is absolutely no upside in doing so. It inevitably puts us in a bad place, not least of all because a HCP is not interested in “reason” – or certainly not yours. I’m about 90% successful in this. Sometimes, I still lose my mind a little when the absurdity or injustice of it all gets to me. But then, like a day of binge-eating ice-cream and chocolate, I shake it off and get back on the program.

These are all tactics recommended specifically for managing a HCP. Because we share children, I know my challenges with my ex won’t ever end – but I also know these approaches have improved my life considerably and helped me regain a measure of control.

No one should be afraid to check their email or a text message or want to self-medicate after doing so. These are some tools to help manage the stress the HCP in your life and lower your PTSD response toward your electronic communications.

For more information on dealing with a High Conflict Personality, go to the man who literally wrote the book on the subject, Bill Eddy, at https://www.highconflictinstitute.com/

Beth Thompson