In my clinical experience, many clients seek therapy because of ongoing relationships with people with high-conflict personalities. These can include parents, adult children, ex-spouses, and others with whom they must frequently interact.
Part of counseling is raising awareness about healthy relationships—and often, my clients are surprised to realize that because of these relationships, they have endured chronic emotional turmoil that may have contributed to their mental health symptoms. For example, being raised by high-conflict parents or cruel and abusive family members can at times result in developmental trauma or even post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the many symptoms my clients face include depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and chronic feelings of guilt.
Often, clients are unaware that it’s possible that the high conflict personalities in their lives (what I call HCPs for short) suffer from undiagnosed personality disorders. Though these disorders are relatively rare, deep-seated personality traits linked to them can cause significant problems in relationships—such as volatility or a tendency to engage in emotional drama, gaslighting, or avoidance. After reflection, many of my clients wisely choose to get off the emotional rollercoaster by ending the problematic relationship altogether, rather than deal with the situation head-on.
Unfortunately, life isn’t always that easy. Many of my clients in unhealthy relationships feel they have limited choices or are unable to leave—because the relationship may be with a toxic co-worker, for example, and they need their job; or because they are a grandparent and don’t wish to lose contact with their grandchildren, in spite of their high-conflict adult child; or because family members they truly care for can feel, at times, impossible to deal with. What should they do then?
Relationship Success (or Not): Rupture and Repair
Most often, the reason for ongoing unresolved conflict in a relationship is because the high-conflict personality lacks the emotional maturity to engage in consistent relationship repair after a rupture.
The degree of success of a relationship within a couple, family, workplace, or group is how effectively all parties can rupture—have disagreements—and repair their conflicts. What does that mean? Every relationship has disagreements, but effective conflict resolution leads both parties to feel closer to each other. Clinicians who work with these populations have found that conflict resolution skills can increase warmth, solve problems, help people feel closer to each other, and increase trust over time (Lester & Godwin, 2021).
The ability to engage in the repair process includes taking responsibility for one’s own actions, having empathy, apologizing, and being able to take another’s perspective—for example, asking questions like, “How did my behavior affect him?” Yet these tasks are only possible if you have the skills necessary to carry them out. HCPs generally do not, and if they do, it’s to a very limited degree. This deficit often leads those that interact with them over time to struggle with a wide range of negative emotions such as anger and confusion.
Unfortunately, with HCPs, there tend to be more frequent arguments and ruptures in relationships than there would be otherwise. This may be due to inherent personality deficits that preclude them from any real chance of effective repair.
Researchers argue that personality disorders are primarily genetic neurological conditions (Lester & Godwin, 2021) that foster negative patterns of behavior that can damage relationships. People with narcissistic personality disorder, for example, tend to lack empathy to truly understand another’s feelings and position, which is the most important step in conflict resolution. They also tend to display a lack of humility, and thus may not apologize after harming another or only see the situation from their own perspective. They tend to also have limited awareness of their behaviors toward others and don’t often take responsibility for their actions.
Can you have a relationship with someone like this? It’s possible—but you likely will have to accept the relationship for what it is and learn to approach it differently from your other relationships.
How to Approach Relationships with High-Conflict Personalities
The first step is assessing how emotional immaturity has shifted the course of your relationship. Beyond that, if you choose to proceed further, the following 7 strategies can help you navigate the situation:
1. Identify the presence, or absence, of rupture-and-repair skills.
Does the person possess the characteristics to engage in effective relationship rupture and repair? Do they take responsibility for their actions? Do they have empathy, and do they listen and validate your position? Are they emotionally mature? If not, if you want to maintain a relationship, your strategies must reflect this reality.
2. Foster radical acceptance.
It is important to accept reality exactly the way that it is without expecting change. The DBT principle of “radical acceptance,” defined by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D., means to accept not only things but people for who they are—this includes accepting their limitations and changing your own expectations. “Radical” in this definition, means “all the way.”
With HCPs, this means accepting that their behaviors and ways of communicating and interpreting reality will likely not change. What can change are your strategies and understanding of their personality limitations.
Grieving is not always limited to those who have died; grief also exists while people are living. Often, grieving the loss of who you thought was a person was and the relationship you wish to have (but can’t) is an important component of the healing process.
Many of my clients yearn for a better relationship with people they “should” be closer to. For example, a client may wish they had a “normal mother” that can share in the joy of major milestones, like having a baby; they wonder why this seems to be impossible no matter how hard they try.
As you grieve, it’s important to remember that even though the closeness you want to have with a sibling, parent, or partner may never happen, this does not mean you cannot have a relationship. However, part of grieving is coming to terms with the fact that the relationship may lack what you truly want or need.
4. Realize you will never be able to reason with the unreasonable.
This idea has been referred to as the “healing fantasy” (Gibson, 2016), in which you hope that someday the other person will suddenly come to their senses if you’re just able to make your point, convince them how much they’ ve harmed you, and so on. If they could, they likely would; but in most cases, they are simply unable to because of their personality and emotional immaturity. Letting go of the fantasy and wishful thinking is key.
5. Detach and observe during interactions.
Mindfulness skills can help achieve this goal, particularly the skill of observing what is happening around you and detaching from it emotionally (Lindsay, 2015). If you find yourself becoming emotional, remind yourself to “detach” or “disengage” and communicate in a factual manner.
6. Distance and doses.
Distance can refer to either physical or emotional distance, depending on your personal boundaries and what will help you stay healthy and emotionally safe. For example. setting time limits on interactions may help manage the relationship. This may include only interacting on the phone for 15 minutes, limiting text messages, or even not responding to emotionally laden texts or e-mails.
7. Manage the relationship; do not engage.
Managing the relationship means focusing on the outcome of an interaction, not the relationship itself. It also means setting reasonable goals for what you can expect from any given interaction.
Imagine, for example, that it’s a holiday, and you’re visiting your high-conflict parents. Your goal in this case should be something like “have a nice visit.” The goal should not be to “work out things emotionally” or you have not radically accepted the situation or changed your expectations.
This is a hard step for most of my clients initially. Managing the relationship can include re-directing the conversation to lighter topics, distractions, or common goals such as a shared activity. A successful outcome wouldn’t mean that you and your parents resolve your problems. But it could be that you have a nice dinner with no conflict or emotional drama—and often, that’s enough.
A version of this article also appears on www.drtracyhutchinson.com.