Dating has changed. Whether you’re a teenager just starting out, or in your 20’s or 30’s looking to find the love of your life, or in your 40’s, 50’s or 60’s (or even older) and dating again, it’s a different world. High conflict people (HCPs) appear to be increasing in our society and may be about one out of eight people. They can be abusive and/or controlling in close relationships: verbally, physically, sexually, financially, spreading rumors, cutting you off from friends and family, and some even bring lawsuits against those they once loved. But much of this is hidden at the beginning.
How can you spot an HCP when you’re dating? The following seven tips can help:
1. Watch Out for Excessive Charm
This catches everyone by surprise. It’s the opposite of what you would expect! Many HCPs have a sugar-coated personality when they first meet people and they can be some of the best at showering dates with attention, affection, presents, lavish dinners, charming notes, flowery comments and texts singing your praises. In many ways this balances the negativity that may be just around the corner after you make a deeper commitment.
This isn’t to say that generosity, attention and affection aren’t okay and part of all good relationships. It’s just that a typical characteristic of HCPs is extremes – including extremely charming behavior. If he or she seems too good to be true, you might be right!
2. Pay Attention to Your Feelings, But Don’t Be Ruled by Them
An amazing number of divorcing people say that they had a gut feeling that there were problems in the relationship before they got married, but they ignored those feelings and thought whatever problems existed could be worked out. Pay attention to gut feelings in relationships. Often with HCPs, your conscious thinking will give the person the benefit of the doubt, while your unconscious gut feelings will sense that there is a problem. Listen to these feelings and consider them. Some of the most high-conflict personalities are skilled at saying the right things while they doing everything wrong.
On the other hand, don’t automatically just follow your feelings. Sometimes our feelings lead us astray and make us attracted to the wrong people for reasons we may never know. Pay attention to your feelings, but discuss them with someone else to get a reality check before making big commitments.
Also, alcohol and other substances can dull your dating radar, so plan some activities which preclude anything which might alter your consciousness and feelings.
3. Don’t Let Sex Blind You
Sex is one of the most powerful factors in falling in love. Hormones released in your brain when you have sex tell you to fall in love with your partner, especially dopamine. It turns on your sense of pleasure and increases your sex drive. It can be as powerful as heroin and other drugs, and can make you fall in love with everything surrounding the person you’re sleeping with: it sharpens your memories of where you are, sights and sounds and smells, and your other shared experiences with the person. (Doidge, The Brain that Changes Itself, 2007)
So you have to be careful who you “hook up” with. This powerful drug in your own brain can make you blind to all the warning signs that you may discover when it wears off several months later (and you may have already made a deeper commitment).
4. Take Your Time
There’s no reason that you have to make a fast commitment to a new relationship. HCPs are usually aggressive and in a rush. They often push new partners to move fast in developing relationships and even in getting married. Yet it can take up to a year before someone’s high-conflict personality fully comes out – and your dopamine blinders have worn off.
For example, domestic violence, spreading rumors and other abusive behavior may not start until about six months into a relationship, when the HCP partner feels threatened enough and safe enough to risk pushing, shoving, hitting and even injuring you. You’re in too deep at this point to quickly call it quits. It’s much easier to blame yourself and think it is an exception and won’t repeat itself. Also, this often catches reasonable people totally by surprise, so that they blame themselves. But such behavior is unacceptable in any relationship and will repeat and repeat if the person has a high-conflict personality. It’s part of who they are. You can often tell whether it’s part of who they are, if they justify abusive behavior and brush it off as normal; or if they say it will never occur again – and then it does.
Other abusive behaviors also may take time to show up, such as financial problems which include extravagant spending with your money, old debts that you didn’t know existed, hiding money, giving property away, paying for their friends’ and family members’ expenses, and so forth.
One of the clearest signs of an HCP is the threat to leave you if you don’t agree to a fast commitment. By taking your time to commit to any new partner, you get the opportunity to see if such hidden behaviors are going to come out. With this in mind, it makes a lot of sense to avoid fast commitments to move in together, get married, or even share money. It’s easier to go slow getting into a good relationship than it is to get out of a high-conflict relationship.
5. Watch Out for All-or-Nothing Thinking
This may be the easiest factor to notice. High conflict people tend to see things as all-good or all-bad. They often view people this way. After a disagreement with someone, does he or she totally blame the other person and avoid any responsibility for solving the problem. Even if he or she was not the cause of the problem, most people reflect on what they could do different to avoid or resolve similar problems in the future. “I should have been more cautious with him.” “I never should have trusted her.” “Next time I’ll get another opinion first.” HCPs often pressure you to agree that others are all-bad, or to involve you in their battles with other people. They typically think of themselves as victims and may frequently describe other people as taking advantage of them or being out to get them.
6. Is He or She Self-Absorbed?
Does he or she ever ask about you? “How was your day?” “What do you think about that subject?” “What do you want to do today?” Many HCPs are so self-absorbed that they forget that you are there – unless they want something from you. Don’t be misled by how clever, creative, and fascinating they are, if they don’t value you in the relationship. Many HCPs are very high functioning people who can draw people in to them, but they don’t put energy out to others and don’t nourish their relationships once they have them. See how they treat other people. Do they treat higher-status people with great respect and lower-status people (waitresses, manual laborers, ex-spouses, etc.) with great disrespect or contempt? Are they surprisingly insensitive to friends and family at times? Are they always trying to prove how superior they are? Do they seem to lack empathy? See how they respond to your interests. Do they change the subject before you are done talking about what is important to you? See how they respond to your feedback about their behavior. Are they interested in self-improvement, or is there an intensely negative response. Also, see how you respond to their feedback about your behavior. Do you feel warm and trusting, or suddenly defensive? Test out the full range of your interests and the full range of your concerns about the other person, to see how they handle “issues” that come up in all relationships. If you’re not comfortable or excited to talk with your partner about almost anything during the first six to twelve months, then it’s unlikely you ever will be. Don’t count on changing your partner. It rarely happens in real life.
7. Watch for High Conflict Personality Patterns
Our personalities are the way we consistently think, feel and act in the world around us over our lifetimes. Personalities are mostly formed in childhood, so they don’t change much once we are adults – unless we make sincere efforts to change and then practice those changes over and over and over again. HCPs usually have no interest in changing themselves, and become quite defensive if you request a new behavior or behavior change. HCPs don’t self-reflect much and usually blame others when things go wrong, including those problems they caused themselves.
There are at least five high conflict personality patterns which are surprisingly predictable once you know the warning signs: the “Love You, Hate You” personality pattern, the “I’m Very Superior” pattern, “Con Artist,” “Always Dramatic,” and “You’re Out to Get Me” patterns. They each have specific extreme ways of thinking, feeling and behavior. You can learn more about them from our articles and books at the High Conflict Institute website, or meet with a mental health professional in your community who can describe these patterns and how you may recognize them and avoid them.
In today’s world, we have more freedom than ever to select our friends and romantic partners. That means we have to become more informed so that we don’t make serious mistakes. The close relationship behavior of high conflict people is often hidden at the beginning, and then becomes confusing, divides family and friends, and grows into higher levels of conflict, rather than decreasing over time. Under the surface, they can become abusive, especially when the relationship becomes really close or when a major stressor or conflict arises.
This can even occur, when you have friends or office workers who have known the person for several years. The problem is that they have never known this person in a really close relationship or under a really major stressor or personal conflict. These are the conditions that really show the person’s high-conflict personality. In general, when the going gets rough in all areas of their lives, they focus on blaming others – and their targets are usually those closest to them in intimate relationships – romantic relationships or really close friendships.
Don’t be caught by surprise. Start developing your Dating Radar before you make future commitments. Remember, there are still about seven out of eight people who aren’t HCPs! There may be one waiting for you!