This article is for anyone that has ever experienced a highly contentious legal conflict, whether it be a divorce and fighting over children and property division or a particularly bitter small claims contract dispute. If you have ever experienced this rather excruciating form of torture, you may have been dealing with someone whom Bill Eddy calls a high conflict personality or HCP for short.
Bill Eddy is an American licensed clinical social worker turned lawyer turned mediator. His area of expertise is in family law and he is the president of the High Conflict Institute LLC in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Eddy has written several books using his knowledge of personality disorders and the way personality disorders manifest in highly contentious legal disputes. His books focus on helping lay people and lawyers identify characteristics of people with personality disorders (HCPs). He writes and teaches about techniques to manage and deal with your conflict in order to establish boundaries and bring the temperature down on your legal dispute without being walked all over.
His books are not intended to be used as a diagnostic tool in order for the average person to diagnose a personality disorder, but rather simply to generate awareness, so as to put you back in the driver’s seat.
When dealing with someone who likely has a personality disorder in a legal dispute, it can feel as if the world has come crashing down around you. Attacks from the other side can be relentless and accusations proliferate. These accusations can start making you question your own sanity, especially when the courts and professionals start taking them seriously. It can seem like you constantly have to defend yourself and start over every time there is a new person on your file. You may feel you are constantly having to convince professionals and the court that you’re not the person the opposing party has accused you of being or you have not done the things that he or she has alleged you have done.
It is exhausting and financially draining to spend years working through the legal system in order to finally come to the conclusion that harmful accusations were baseless. Unfortunately, because of the way the legal system works, it can take years to fight back against baseless accusations.
In his book, High Conflict People in Legal Disputes, Eddy writes about four types of HCPs: borderline personalities, narcissistic personalities, antisocial personalities, and histrionic personalities. He gives insight to the different personality types and explains the pattern of their thinking.
I have found his work useful to provide a framework for dealing with litigation with a party with a personality disorder; this framework can help anyone anticipate the reaction, actions, and motivation of people with personality disorders, so that the litigation is not as chaotic and confusing. In short, if you’ve experienced litigation with a person with a personality disorder, you will know that it is neither logical, nor rational.
To get you started in making sense of your litigation, here is a brief overview of the different types of personality disorders, which Eddy canvases in his book:
Eddy explains, people with borderline personalities tend to have all or nothing thinking. They operate in extremes—the good is just too good and the bad is just too bad. Until you get to know someone with a borderline personality disorder, they will appear normal and even appealing. Once you get to know them, you may see there is a split between their outward persona and their frequent private angry behavior.
People with borderline personality disorders fear abandonment and are often preoccupied with attachments to others; while they fear a relationship ending, it is hard for them to be in a close intimate relationship. Borderline personality disorder is also characterized by impulsive, self-sabotaging/damaging behaviours, such as spending, sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating.
Eddy recommends moderation in dealing with people that may have borderline personality disorder; avoid reacting to them in the way they act towards you (i.e. no intense anger, criticism, or reactions); be clear about your boundaries and don’t ignore them or abruptly terminate a relationship with them. With BPDs, easy does it.
People with narcissistic personality disorder will often become involved in legal disputes because they are high risk takers, do not have much respect for others and cannot see the consequences of their own actions. When their own actions upset them, they will often feel like the victim. Forget settling and compromising with someone with NPD. NPDs tend to be very rigid in their thinking (all or nothing). They will persist in legal disputes in a manner that many people would consider to be unreasonable.
In dealing with people with NPD, it is important to avoid direct criticism and recognize real strengths and accomplishments (rather than their imagined ones). Though it will be difficult, in order to reach a resolution, you will need to explore areas where the NPD may be able to be flexible, while on the face of allowing him or herself to maintain the appearance of victory. (In my experience, this may be next to impossible given the situation and you may be stuck with dealing with your case until all possible legal avenues are exhausted.)
People with antisocial personalities are driven to dominate and hurt other people, while other personalities tend to hurt other people unintentionally. They often lack remorse for their actions and have a reckless disregard for safety of themselves or others. People with antisocial personalities are very adept at appearing normal and credible, they tend to be highly manipulative and charming. They will often proclaim innocence and accuse others of wrongdoing. Be warned, antisocial personalities can be very effective in the legal process.
If you’re dealing with someone like this in the legal process, be sure to be prepared to protect yourself and encourage your lawyer to demand corroborating information for anything the opposing party asserts. Explain and set boundaries and follow through with imposing consequences for misconduct. Be skeptical at being able to reach a negotiated or mediated settlement, which the person with antisocial personality will follow through on. Be sure to build in protections or enforcement mechanisms for any court order or mediated agreement.
The final group of personalities which Eddy writes about are the histrionic personalities. Histrionic personalities display high-intensity emotion with few facts and little focus. Their emotions have been described as “exaggerated and short-lived.” Histrionic personalities tend to be uncomfortable when they are not the centre of attention; their emotions will rapidly shift and appear to be quite shallow; they will be fairly dramatic and theatrical; they will often consider relationships to be more intimate than they actually are; they are easily suggestible.
The problem with histrionic personalities in legal conflicts is that they will often play the victim and the intensity of their emotions can be very persuasive. This can be very challenging in a legal context because courts tend to be concerned about helping the victim and punishing perpetrators. Eddy writes that histrionic personalities are “constantly bending or fabricating emotional facts. They often don’t know where the line is between true and false—it’s all based on dramatic effect.”
When dealing with a histrionic personality, it can be useful to empathize with feelings, but not alleged abuses. It is important to maintain structure and focus. In court, it will be important to come prepared with the facts and corroborating evidence, otherwise it will devolve into a contest of he said/she said. Without corroborating evidence, it may be that the more emotionally persuasive person will win the day.
There is no easy answer to managing a legal conflict with a person with a personality disorder; seek the assistance and support of counsellors, friends, and family to help you stay strong through the conflict. Be prepared to try different techniques to resolve your conflict. Accept that your dispute may take longer to resolve than others of a similar nature, simply because of the person on the other side.