4 Red Flags of a High-Conflict Partner
Personality awareness can help people spot signs of future difficulties.
Posted December 31, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
High conflict people (HCPs) tend to have four characteristics: 1) Preoccupation with blaming others; 2) all-or-nothing thinking and solutions; 3) unmanaged or intense emotions; and 4) extreme behavior and/or threats. This is not a diagnosis, but rather a description of conflict behavior. However, those with high conflict personality patterns often have personality disorders, which is a diagnosis. This means that they have an enduring pattern of dysfunctional interpersonal behavior.
The personality disorders prone to high conflict behavior are the Cluster B personalities: narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, histrionic; and paranoid from Cluster A. However, many people (perhaps half) with these disorders do not have a high conflict personality pattern because they are not preoccupied with blaming other specific people. They just can’t see their own part in the problems they have and therefore don’t try to change.
High conflict patterns are usually hidden at the beginning of a relationship or partnership. Most people are surprised when it turns out that their spouse, business partner, or other people close to them have a high conflict personality. Suddenly, you become their target of blame. Everything is “all your fault!” The partner’s solutions may escalate into extremes, from refusing to talk about important issues, to spreading rumors, on up to breaking things or violence.
While there are ways to manage relationships with HCPs when they are not too severe, most people would rather not commit to such relationships in the first place. And if you believe you have such a pattern, it is never too late to practice new behaviors, such as with a therapist.
Here are 4 warning signs of a high conflict partner (who may or may not have a personality disorder):
1. Preoccupation with blaming others.
You may see this behavior in how the person speaks of others. “My last divorce was all her fault.” “My last business partner totally destroyed the business.” “My neighbor ruined everything.” One of these statements on their own may actually be true. But it is worth checking out the situation, because these can also be warning signs. Is there a pattern of speaking this way? Did one person say all of these statements? If so, that is very concerning, because in any relationship, usually, both people contribute to problems and solutions. This is part of human nature. (See my blog on reciprocity: “What Do You Evoke in Others (and They in You)?”)
But if your potential partner blames others a lot, you will also find that they probably do not take responsibility when they should. You may want to test the relationship before you commit by planning and working on a project together first. Does your partner follow through? Does he or she blame you?
2. All-or-nothing thinking or solutions.
High conflict people often speak in all-or-nothing terms. They tend to see people as all-good or all-bad. They often escalate disagreements into much larger judgments of the whole relationship. “Well then, let’s just get divorced.” “If you won’t agree (on this minor issue), then let’s just dissolve our business partnership.” “You are the worst partner I’ve ever had.” “I totally believe everything he said about you.”
Other all-or-nothing examples include repeatedly canceling or not showing for appointments, claiming credit for the work of others, denying responsibility for spending money unreasonably, and blatant lying. Rather than excuse such extremes, take them seriously in looking at overall personality patterns of behavior.
Also, watch out for words that are designed to hook you in. For example: “I feel totally unsupported by you.” “My childhood was the worst ever. You need to give me a break.” Of course, in rare situations, these statements may be true. Just treat them as warning signs to look into.
3. Unmanaged or intense emotions.
This is often where the biggest surprise comes. The partner suddenly blasts you with intense rage over some minor or nonexistent problem. People are often frozen in fear or doubt after being the target of such rage. You may question yourself: “Did I really do something so bad?” “Is there something seriously wrong with me?” These are common questions people ask themselves around a high conflict person, and a sign of healthy self-reflection. However, if the other person’s emotions repeatedly do not fit the circumstances, this may be a warning sign of the person’s inability to manage their own emotions.
HCPs with borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic personality disorders frequently demonstrate these intense, unmanaged emotions. However, with some high conflict people, you may not see unmanaged or intense emotions. For example, HCPs with antisocial or paranoid personality disorders may keep their emotions under tight control much of the time. But in reality, their hidden emotions may be driving their extreme behavior.
4. Extreme behavior or threats.
Sometimes there is a growing pattern of extreme behavior as you get to know the person. Other times they have engaged in an extreme behavior that most people would never do. While they may have a credible excuse ("I was tired" or "I was stressed"), ask yourself if you would ever do that behavior even if you were tired or under stress. HCPs are often used to quickly coming up with excuses for their extreme behavior. Frequent excuses are a warning sign.
Threats of extreme behavior can be another warning sign. “You’ll never see the kids again if you ever divorce me!” “I will kill myself if you ever break up with me!” “I will ruin your business reputation!” “I’m going to go to the press and TV stations and tell them how awful you really are!” All of such threats should be taken seriously. They are not part of normal relationship conversations or behavior.
Personality awareness includes knowing the warning signs to look for when considering new relationships. Do some research and self-reflection before committing. For more specific information like this, see my books Dating Radar and It’s All Your Fault at Work.
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