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What Therapists Don't Tell You About Divorcing A High-Conflict Personality

02/19/2013 12:08 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2013

Therapists are trained to help clients become self-aware and authentic. For people who grew up in invalidating environments, where they learned to suppress their feelings and needs in order to be accepted, therapy can be life-altering.

Competent therapists who provide a corrective emotional experience can make it possible for people who never had a voice to find one. Once self-actualized, people generally find the quality of their lives improve: they find the right career, attract the right mate and extricate themselves from toxic relationships.

Unfortunately, this type of personal growth can be disastrous when divorcing a high-conflict personality. When working with a client who is married to, or separating from a narcissist, therapists need to invert the goal of traditional therapy. Instead of encouraging people to be authentic, they need to counsel people to be strategic. Expressing one's true feelings, admitting vulnerability, and apologizing for one's missteps can bury a person who is trying to dissolve a marriage with a narcissist -- especially when children are involved.

Why Don't More Therapists Understand How to Treat High-Conflict Divorce?

Graduate psychology programs teach future therapists how to facilitate a client's personal growth. Students learn what personality disorders look like, and how they develop. But there are no courses in graduate school that train psychology students how to help clients navigate high-conflict divorce.

When treating a client in individual therapy, a therapist doesn't have the benefit of observing the narcissistic spouse. Even in couples therapy, a therapist might be duped by the high-conflict personality, who often comes across as charming, while the more reasonable spouse, who has spent years being traumatized by crazy-making behavior, can look like the difficult one.

5 Tips for Divorcing a High-Conflict Personality

1. Minimize Contact
High-conflict personalities thrive off of battle. Their agenda, which is often subconscious, is to maintain your relationship by creating drama: bad-mouthing you to everyone under the sun and especially to your children, cyber-bullying, multiple, intrusive phone calls and any other way they can find to keep you from moving on with your life.

While your gut reaction might be to defend yourself, you cannot reason with a terrorist. Anything you say can and will be used against you. To mitigate the chaos caused by a high-conflict personality, you must keep communication to a minimum. Avoid face-to-face contact. Cultivate a "just the facts, ma'am" style of e-mail and text correspondence. When possible, arrange neutral places such as school for the drop-off and pick-up of children.

2. Keep Your Feelings to Yourself
High-conflict personalities are bullies. They like to "win" by making you angry or beating you down. Do not act on your feelings. If you yell, cry, plead, or otherwise tip your emotional hand, you will invite more attacks. Being stuck in the cross-hairs of a narcissist is traumatic, so by all means seek support through safe means: therapy, and online support groups for people with personality-disordered exes are two examples. But whatever you do, don't let a narcissist know how you really feel -- especially if you have a different point-of-view, which will always be interpreted as a threat.

3. Plan for the Worst
Do not listen to conventional wisdom that your ex will "move on" in time. Well-adjusted people move on; high-conflict personalities never quench their thirst for revenge and their desire to feel like "the good one." Anticipate being dragged into court for minor indiscretions, or worse, total fabrications.

Do not say or write anything that might make you look bad. Respond to even the most frivolous accusations with factual, non-defensive e-mails detailing what actually happened. Document everything; save hostile e-mails, take screen shots of abusive texts, note every violation of your court orders.

You never know if a narcissist will follow through on threats to sue you, so you must be prepared if they do.

4. Never Admit a Mistake
You can, and should be, accountable for your part in the end of the marriage. But be accountable in a safe environment: therapy, 12-step groups, or in the company of trusted family and friends.

Do not admit wrongdoing to your high-conflict ex, especially in writing. Apologizing will not create a more amicable relationship. A high-conflict ex will interpret your apology as proof that you are the mentally ill, incompetent, stupid person she says you are. Even admissions of minor mistakes can be twisted into admissions of heinous acts and spur a high-conflict ex to take you to court, or simply broadcast to everyone with whom they come in contact that you are a terrible person.

5. Stop Trying to Co-Parent
I have written before about the one-size-fits-all co-parenting model. Well-meaning, but misinformed therapists do targets of high-conflict personalities a huge disservice by advising them that they can, and should, co-parent. Certainly, an amicable co-parenting relationship is ideal for children. But attempts to co-parent with a narcissist or a borderline will keep you engaged in battle. You will forever be on the receiving end of intrusive, controlling, chaotic behaviors which will make you and your kids crazy.

Parallel parenting is the only paradigm that should be recommended to people with personality-disordered exes. This means that you give up the fantasy that you can have consistency between homes, or appear as a united front. The more high-conflict your ex is, the more you will need to separate yourself and your parenting. This may mean hosting separate birthday parties, scheduling separate parent-teacher conferences and not sharing what goes on in your house.

While you may feel that you are sending a terrible message to your children by limiting contact with their other parent, you are actually protecting them by minimizing the potential for conflict.

Targets of high-conflict personalities need to accept that it isn't wise to be "authentic" with their ex. Strategic, limited disclosures and iron-clad boundaries are essential tools in managing a high-conflict divorce. While it may seem paradoxical, true authenticity comes from holding on to one's sense of self while gracefully disengaging from a narcissist.

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