High-conflict partners – how to sharpen your dating radar


Spotting the next Tinder Swindler – why we are often attracted to people who will hurt us

high-conflict partners

The women interviewed on The Tinder Swindler seem perfectly normal. They are attractive, intelligent, capable young women. How did they become embroiled in such an unfortunate sequence of events? Where was their dating radar?

Two Americans – Bill Eddy, a family therapist, and Megan Hunter, a family law specialist – have written a booked called “Dating Radar: Why Your Brain Says Yes to “the One” Who Will Make Your Life Hell. It’s too late for the Tinder Swindler’s victims, but it might just prevent the next dating disaster. We’re not going to review the whole book, but there are some key concepts presented that are worth sharing. As family lawyers we see the grief and pain caused by high-conflict divorces. Anything we can do to prevent them is worthwhile.

High-conflict personalities

We’ve written a lot about narcissism and navigating (or escaping) a relationship with a narcissist. The narcissist is one type of high-conflict person, but there are three others. The authors don’t apply the term “narcissist” to all high-conflict types, but in our experience there are different types of narcissists, and we believe that all four types of high-conflict individuals contain shades of narcissism. See our article on covert narcissists.

However, the terminology is irrelevant. What is important is the behaviour exhibited, what it signifies, and what you can do when you encounter it. If you can learn to recognise the red flags that reveal high-conflict tendencies, you can make healthy life choices before the ability to choose is taken from you.

High-conflict behaviour patterns

Regardless of which type of high-conflict personality the person may display, Eddy and Hunter say there are four primary characteristics:

  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Unmanaged emotions
  • Extreme behaviour or threats
  • Preoccupation with blaming others

These traits can manifest through some or all of the following behaviours:

  • Blame
  • Manipulation
  • Lying and deceitfulness
  • Cognitive distortions
  • Controlling/dominating
  • Hitting, biting, scratching or throwing things
  • Jumping to conclusions
  • Jealousy
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Inability to handle criticism
  • Domestic violence/child abuse or false allegations of domestic violence/child abuse against a partner

These behaviours are almost never apparent at the beginning of a relationship with a high-conflict partner. Friends and romantic partners generally express surprise or even shock when these negative qualities start to emerge. The person was so nice to begin with! Sometimes high-conflict behaviour manifests itself suddenly – “overnight”, according to Eddy and Hunter. But in a far greater number of cases it reveals itself “over time” or “later in the relationship”, according to a survey conducted by the authors. By then, the relationship is often cemented, often via marriage and/or children, making it much harder to walk away from a high-conflict partner.

Four types of high-conflict partners

At the heart of Eddy and Hunter’s analysis lie four basic types of high-conflict partners (HCPs). Each type exhibits certain predictable behaviour traits and is driven by a core underlying fear, resulting in a corresponding need. There are also reasons why we might be drawn to these individuals, but we’ll first look at each type of HCP in turn.

Narcissistic HCPs

Narcissistic HCPs need to feel superior to others, and this is especially true of romantic or life partners. They achieve this by putting others down, making the other out to be unintelligent or overemotional. Their basic fear is being seen as inferior, so to counter that they put others down, positioning themselves as superior. They can be, according to Eddy and Hunter, “demanding, demeaning, self-absorbed and insulting”. Spend time around a narcissist and it won’t be long before you start to believe you truly are inferior.

Borderline HCPs

It’s easy to see why the borderline HCP is attractive – at first. They seem attentive, devoted even. Anyone who has waited nervously for a phone call or message from a new partner will find the regular contact reassuring, even flattering…until it becomes stifling. Borderline HCPs fear abandonment, so they compensate with over-attachment. They call or message all the time, and cling to a partner. Because they fear being abandoned, they can get irrationally angry when the partner is held up in traffic or out with friends. They suffer sudden mood swings, often flying off the handle unexpectedly.

Antisocial HCPs

Antisocial (or sociopathic) HCPs care only about themselves. They come across as charming, but it’s a means to an end. People are only valuable as tools to help the antisocial HCP get what they want in life. Their behaviour stems from the fear of being dominated, so they mitigate that fear by dominating others – especially partners.

Histrionic HCPs

The histrionic HCP is the drama queen (or king). They are prickly and react emotionally to the most minor of triggers. They often blame their partner for their pain. Ultimately, the histrionic HCP fears being ignored, and consequently needs to be the centre of attention. Their behaviour can come across as helpless and attention-seeking, and they have a tendency to exaggerate.

The law of attraction

Why would anyone want to be with any of these four personality types? Well, it’s not as if they walk around with signs on their back, while the rest of us are all completely well adjusted. Human beings are complex, and we are all dealing with issues. We may not recognise a particular red flag in a potential partner because we’re looking for something else, based on a previous relationship that went sour. The behaviours described above may not be obvious until much later in the relationship. In the dating stage, the HCP can be totally charming and attractive. They often “love-bomb”, i.e., display intense emotion and make grand romantic gestures that make a new partner feel very special. People who have come out of relationships with HCPs say there was a very strong spark right from the beginning – more so than in relationships that develop more slowly.

Our own fears and needs

We may also respond to HCPs because we have fears of our own. They may not be as extreme or as deeply embedded as the fears of the HCP, but if we have been abandoned in the past – “dumped” in a relationship we thought was going well, for example, or if our parents divorced when we were young – we may be attracted to someone who clings to us. We share a fear of abandonment and reassure each other. Some people have been traumatised in childhood and suffer from low self-esteem. In their eyes they are inferior, and gravitate towards the narcissistic HCP. Someone who winds up in a high-conflict relationship does not deserve to be judged or criticised. They may be dealing with their own demons. They need love and support to address their own issues and to move on from the relationship.

Getting out

Leaving an HCP is not easy, even when life has become unbearable. Love may still be present, against all odds, making a partner determined to persevere. A partner may believe the other can change, despite evidence to the contrary, or may have an innate need to be the rescuer, in a co-dependent type of relationship. The HCP may make it very difficult for the other to leave, behaving in a manipulative and even threatening manner. Often something extreme happens to trigger a life change, such as an outburst of violence or the discovery of an affair. But if you are watching someone you love live through the nightmare of an HCP, you may need to be patient. They may resist or reject your attempts to help. Don’t walk away. Be there for them. When they are ready, they will be glad you are there. If this is you, we encourage you to confide in a trusted friend or seek help from a professional counsellor.

Let SD Law help

SD Law & Associates are experts in divorce and family law and have dealt with many cases of narcissistic control and other types of high-conflict personalities in intimate relationships. If you are in a high-conflict relationship and considering divorce, or just want to discuss your options, we can guide you through the process with compassion and dignity. Contact attorney Simon Dippenaar on 086 099 5146 or email simon@sdlaw.co.za.

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The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.

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