Strategies to Break the Cycle of Reaction When Divorcing a High-Conflict Personality

Are you divorcing a spouse who seems to thrive when conflict escalates? We recently sat down with High Conflict and Divorce Relationship Coach, Barbara La Pointe, to talk through skills and strategies to help de-escalate difficult interactions when divorcing a high conflict personality spouse:

What exactly is a high conflict personality (HCP)?

“Someone with a high conflict personality has a long and enduring pattern of escalating conflict, creating conflict, and getting fueled by or liking conflict, rather than an enduring pattern of behavior that resolves conflict or brings to the table constructive conflict resolution,” explains La Pointe. “So in family law cases, that can mean a long pattern of escalating conflict, which is costly both emotionally and financially”

What are the common challenges of divorcing someone with an HCP?

“A narcissist will respond to conflict in a family law case in a power assertive way. So there’s no win-win, no collaboration, and you’ll see inflexible, all-or-nothing thinking. That black-and-white thinking and that anger and revenge make it really hard to come to the table and mediate an agreement where everybody wins. So of course, this kind of chips away at a person; self-esteem, confidence, nervous system, and emotional regulation are affected. And hey, come on, we're already a little vulnerable when we go to file for divorce anyways, wouldn't you agree?”

If someone is divorcing an HCP, what can be done to reduce conflict?

“I would say if you really wanted to see a positive shift when divorcing a narcissist, or dealing with an HCP through time, especially in family law, which is inherently adversarial, it's really a time to lean into your humanity and to learn strategies to communicate. At the end of the day, you can only create healing and renewing patterns for yourself, and you can only focus on transforming yourself.”

Do you have any specific recommendations for strategies to reduce conflict?

“One strategy that I've used myself for many years is bringing in the BIFF strategy, and that's an acronym for creating responses that are Brief, Informative, Firm, and Friendly. If narcissists are using language that's attacking, insulting, demeaning, inconsistent, and not based on conflict resolution, no one wins, and we might be thinking we want this conflict to end. But you can't walk away from family law cases. So you have to go through the storm to get out, and one of the first things I would say is to change your communication strategies to BIFF strategies.

Why is it important to utilize BIFF and other communication strategies when divorcing an HCP?

“Emotionally, [you can get stuck in] a limbic loop, where we're just emotionally reacting until you can step back and start to understand what's going on. It’s so important that we come into our own power, and seek out the support of a divorce coach, a counselor, or a psychologist. We have to become more mindful, rather than leaking our energy out to these conflicts that draw us in, that trigger us, and that trick us. We need to learn these skills of mindfulness, the communication strategy of BIFF, and making effective communication strategies; it really it comes down to emotionally regulating ourselves.”

What advice do you have for someone who’s finding it difficult to change communication strategies?

“It is a learned skill, and that's hopeful because everyone can learn it. The sooner you understand that, especially in family law cases, it will save you so much energy, so much time, so much money, and you'll get better outcomes in terms of court orders. The narcissist is really good at eroding your credibility to the point where you might start questioning yourself; in common culture, we call it gaslighting. You might start wondering, “Am I a narcissist? Am I a bad parent?” You've got to rebuild and reinvest in your own self-esteem bank, in your own energies, and in yourself. You need to bring the focus back to yourself so that you're playing the Art of Peace, and not the Art of War.”

To listen to Barbara’s full interview, check out our firm podcast Modern Family Matters on Apple Podcast. If you would like to speak with Barbara about communication strategies when divorcing a high conflict personality, you can contact her via her website: