Protect Yourself from High-Conflict Exes and their Pattern of Dysfunction

Stepmum putting her hand out

When dealing with a High-Conflict Ex (HCE), it’s imperative to not get caught up in their constant complaining, negativity, and attacks.

From my experience, there is a clear pattern of behavior that presents itself. Knowing this and understanding this pattern keeps my husband and I from getting sucked into the vortex of negativity.

The pattern we’ve encountered starts with some form of communication. Then, HCE misinterprets, assumes, or comes up with her own version of reality based on that communication, which is typically inaccurate. She feels attacked, which then releases her temper tantrum. This temper tantrum causes her to text or call where she spews insults, accusations, and inappropriate comments. These interactions seem to give her an energy boost, where she projects, attacks, blames and acts in an aggressive/obsessive way. Bill Eddy, author of, It’s All Your Fault!: 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything, explains that “instead of sharing responsibility for solving problems, they repeatedly lose it and increase conflict by making it intensely personal and taking no responsibility.”

During these temper tantrums, my husband and I either ignore her invitations for conflict or we focus on responding in a factual manner. We also try to keep the conversation strictly on the girls rather than HCE’s complaints.

Then after some time, HCE realizes her behavior was completely inappropriate and, in an attempt to protect her image, she will apologize for her temper tantrum. Sometimes we just get the negativity with no apology, but we have received multiple apologies. These apologies typically include excuses for her irrational behavior. Certified Stepfamily Coach, Jenna Korf, explains, “In my experience, they’ll (HCE’s) always have an excuse or justification for their behavior, while attacking you for yours. They’re also skilled at projecting their own behaviors and beliefs onto you.” At first, I was hopeful in thinking her apologies were genuine, but after the repeated conflict, I now realize the apologies are just a part of the pattern. After all, the best apology is changed behavior and that has yet to happen.

My husband and I have dealt with this pattern of behavior for a long time now.

Sometimes the best response is no response.

nicole dilorenzo

In order to limit the impact of this dysfunctional pattern of communication, there are things you can do to protect yourself and your marriage:

1. Ignore/disengage:

Just because someone calls or texts doesn’t mean you have to pick up or respond. Sometimes the best response is no response. If you are already involved in the communication, you can simply set a boundary and state, “I will only speak with you when you are calm. I am hanging up now.”

If you are conditioned to always answer the phone or respond to a text, which gets you caught up in drama, remind yourself that you do not have to engage in this type of communication. Your goal can be to recondition yourself to only respond when it directly relates to your children and/or when someone is speaking to you in a calm manner.

2. Laugh:

It’s challenging not to get emotionally wound up when people are engaging you in conflict, but if you can disengage and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all, you’ll live a much happier life. My husband and I have many inside jokes about the HCE in our life. As they say, humor is the best medicine.

3. Accept:

You can’t change someone else. The only person you can change is yourself. When dealing with a HCE, you have to accept this person for who they are because they are not going to change. HCE’s have their own interpretation of who you are, which is always going to be skewed. You cannot change them or their opinions, so don’t waste any more time and energy.

4. Focus on You:

Focus on being your authentic self. Work on protecting your spirit and the spirit of your marriage. Start developing a tool-box of coping strategies that will decrease the negativity from the HCE in your life. My tool-box of strategies involves, blocking all communication by hitting the “do not disturb” button on my phone, going for a walk, punching a punching bag, focusing on breathing, yoga, having sex, singing and taking baths. Find something that works for you.

High-conflict exes thrive off of constant conflict. By educating yourself on their pattern of dysfunction, you can focus on yourself, your sanity, and your marriage, which will lead to a happier you.