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High Conflict Divorce and Custody

Posted by Stephen McDonough | Dec 22, 2014 | 0 Comments

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I think Biff could be considered an HCP!

Are there ways you can better manage a high conflict divorce or custody conflict?  Is everything a battle with your ex-partner, spouse, or your child's other parent?

As a mediator, I am in the conflict management business. When a client is dealing with an unreasonable or difficult ex, stress frustration levels skyrocket, so anything I can do to provide my clients tools to better manage different situations is a good thing.  The highest levels of conflict normally flow from parenting and custody disputes.  Frankly, some of the conflict is over relatively mundane things, but that doesn't make it any easier for a parent dealing with a difficult personality on the other side.

I recently finished an interesting book with an even more interesting title – BIFF, by Bill Eddy.  Eddy is a lawyer, mediator, and therapist, and an expert in dealing with High Conflict People (HCP).  So what – or who –  is BIFF?

High Conflict Divorce – Mediation & Support

I'll get to that shortly, but first it is important to understand a few basics about High Conflict People. Eddy reminds readers that we all may display some of these traits at times, but when someone frequently shows an inability to control himself and solve problems, they are challenging for others to interact with. In other words, HCPs can drive us crazy if we let them. HCPs use personal attacks and lack skills for dealing with conflict.  HCPs increase conflict because they make things personal and refuse to take any responsibility for situations or their actions.

I will now list all HCPs I know:

Just kidding. You know who you are…BUT wait!  According to the author, you don't actually know who you are; meaning HCPs are seriously lacking in the self-awareness department…but more on that later. But wait again…Could I be a HCP and not even know it?  Nah. I'm awesome and everything really is all your fault.

HCPs frequently exhibit patterns of the following behaviors according to Eddy:

  • Unmanaged Emotions – Exaggerated anger, fear, or sadness.
  • All-or-Nothing Thinking – one person is all good, another is all bad.
  • Extreme Behavior – yelling, hitting, lying, spreading rumors, impulsive actions, etc.
  • Preoccupation With Blaming Others

Eddy stresses the need of HCPs to blame others in the face of conflict, and how they cannot cope with the thought that they may be to blame for psychological reasons.  If this situation is pointed out to the HCP, he or she becomes even more defensive, which is just wonderful for those around them.

If you are involved with a HCP, their response “feels like they are engaged in campaigns to destroy you or someone else.” Even typical pressures of daily life can trigger extreme behaviors.   HCPs lack self-awareness, and thus make no effort to alter their own behavior when things do not go well, as most people do.  HCPs are highly defensive about their own actions and put an inordinate amount of effort into blaming others, instead of learning from their past experiences.

While reading Eddy's book, I continually thought of divorce cases I handled involving at least one high-conflict person.  Usually it was one of the involved parties, but certainly a few lawyers come to mind. For divorcing or divorced parents, dealing with your HCP partner and/or other parent can lead to intense frustration.

To make matters worse, you may have to deal with this HCP for many years regarding routine matters such as scheduling children's activities, vacations, or even just asking for a minor adjustment to  drop off time for the kids.   Of course, these things won't feel routine with a HCP on the other side. Thus, if there is a technique to make these unpleasant interactions less toxic, it seems that learning it would be absolutely worthwhile.

In an effort to help those of us (likely ALL of us) that encounter high-conflict people, Eddy provides a simple system for communicating with HCPs in a strategic way, but also points out that not responding at all may be the best option in some instances.   Now, I will finally tell you what BIFF is. BIFF is short for a BIFF response, usually made in writing, but it could be in person, to a HCP.  BIFF stands for:

  • BRIEF
  • INFORMATIVE
  • FRIENDLY
  • FIRM

Eddy provides numerous examples on responding to the difficult people in our lives – whether at home, work, an ex-spouse, through social media, etc.  The examples are realistic, and it was easy to see how a BIFF response could help manage a high-conflict personality.

I am going to keep a supply of these books around for clients that could benefit from learning the simple art of the BIFF response.  For about $12.00, you can get your own copy on Amazon.com.  This could be the best $12.00 you ever spend on yourself. If you are getting a divorce or experiencing issues with your ex-spouse, then this book may help lower your stress levels and avoid the blamespeak (as Eddy refers to it) of HCPs.   I give it two thumbs up, probably three thumbs up if I had a third thumb.

About the Author

Stephen McDonough

Stephen works closely with clients facing divorce or other family conflict. He is a certified mediator through the Massachusetts Council on Family Mediation, a designation that only about 11% of mediators have obtained. In addition to providing mediation services, Stephen regularly appears in...

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