The Restraining Order Plaintiff from Hell: Malicious Prosecution and the “High-Conflict Person”

Posted on March 30, 2014


“The term ‘high conflict person’ has been popularised relatively recently in legal texts and general discourse to describe those people with certain behavioural clusters who are often observed in legal disputes. This is not meant to suggest that it is a new phenomenon. On the contrary, vexatious individuals and difficult clients are not new to agencies of accountability, lawyers, or mediators, especially those working in highly emotive legal dispute areas such as family law.”

Duncan McLean

Since I’m neither a psychologist nor an attorney, I’m free to say politically incorrect things. Layman’s license authorizes me to clarify, for instance, that the high-conflict people referred to in the epigraph can be monstrous. A clinician might hesitate to call the conduct of high-conflict people sick, and a mediator would reject such labeling as counterproductive to compromise. Nevertheless, that conduct can be extremely sick and far exceed the bounds of words like contrary, vexatious, and difficult.

If you’ve been attacked serially by someone you trusted who’s abused legal process to hurt you, spread false rumors about you, made false allegations against you, and otherwise manipulated others to join in bullying you (possibly over a period spanning years and despite your reasonable attempts to settle the situation), your persecutor is an example of the high-conflict person to whom the epigraph refers, and understanding his or her motives may be of value to your self-protection.

What the author of the monograph from which the quotation above is excerpted means by “behavioral clusters” (switching to the American spelling) is a set of traits and patterns of habitual conduct. High-conflict people, people with personality disorders (or who at least manifest some of their maladaptive traits), are defined by clusters of observable characteristics that guide them to instigate and sustain conflict, including conflict through abuse of legal process. Borderline, antisocial, narcissistic, and histrionic personality disorder (collectively, the “Cluster B disorders”) are defined by such characterological clusters.

Personality disorders are grouped into clusters based on their predominant features, and it is the Cluster B disorders which typically present with high expression of emotions, neuroticism, dramatization, and hostility.

Cluster B disorders are categorised into the following four sub-types:

  1. Borderline Personality – marked by instability of mood and intense anger, self-destructiveness, a poor sense of self, fears of abandonment, and manipulative behaviour.
  2. Antisocial Personality – a disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others and the rules of society; a lack of empathy and remorse; exploitative, reckless, and irresponsible behaviour.
  3. Narcissistic Personality – a pattern of grandiosity, self-love, and a need for admiration; a sense of entitlement and haughty, arrogant attitudes; preoccupation with success, power, brilliance.
  4. Histrionic Personality – pervasive and excessive emotionality and attention-seeking behaviour; shallow or insincere emotions; inappropriately seductive or provocative behaviour; impressionistic and flamboyant speech.

Note that a single individual may possess traits of more than one personality disorder (or may have more than one personality disorder) and that these definitions are not impervious to overlap. “The people diagnosed with these four disorders are known for their frequent and dramatic interpersonal conflicts and crises. Their personality characteristics often bring them into disputes which involve many others to resolve—including the courts” (Cheryl Cohen, Jack Mahler, and Gwen Jones, “Managing High Conflict Personalities in Mediation”).

If a reader of this post takes nothing else away from the epigraph, s/he should at least note Mr. McLean’s remark that high-conflict, personality-disordered people are “often observed in legal disputes,” a remark echoed by the quotation immediately above, which comes from a different source. Although high-conflict personalities are a minority respective to the population as a whole, they’re disproportionately commonplace among complainants to the courts and other “agencies of accountability” (like child protective services and the police, to offer but a couple of examples).

[P]eople with Cluster B personality disorders are more likely to escalate their disputes to satisfy their underlying need for dominance, blame, denial of responsibility and, sometimes, revenge.

High-conflict people, plainly, are your false accusers and vexatious litigants from hell. They’re driven to divert blame from themselves and exert it on others (who may be their victims).

Restraining orders, due to their low evidentiary threshold and ease of procurement, are ideal media for abuse by those with no scruples about lying or manipulating others and a keen interest in exciting drama and mayhem.

Mediators are circumspect in their judgments, because their role is to pacify strife and facilitate bridge-building between disputants. Effectively doing their work depends on possessing an empathic understanding of the motives of high-conflict people, which may also be worthwhile to those who’ve been victimized by them.

Cognitive distortions, thoughts that are based on a false premise, are a significant feature of high conflict personalities’ thinking style. Often as a consequence of disrupted attachment or a dysfunctional or abusive upbringing, sufferers will develop cognitive distortions and defence mechanisms in an attempt to make sense of the world and to make their experiences fit their own emotions.

Emotionally healthy people base their feelings on facts, whereas people with high conflict personalities tend to bend the facts to fit what they are feeling. This is known as “emotional reasoning.” The facts are not actually true, but they feel true to the individual. The consequence of this is that they exhibit an enduring pattern of blaming others and a need to control and/or manipulate.

The mediator’s position is that high-conflict people are in a sense “unconscious” of their lies and manipulations. More accurate might be that such people aren’t self-critical; they rationalize their conduct, which may be much more impulsive than premeditated but is always relentless and nonetheless destructive. Certainly many psychologists are less generous in their estimations of how unaware the personality-disordered are of their deceits and manipulations—as their victims are bound to be.

That notwithstanding, the appearance of monographs like the one I’ve highlighted in this post is a big deal, because our courts and other “agencies of accountability” are pretty much clueless about personalities like the ones on which it focuses attention (as in fact are most victims of such people).

That’s not to say Mr. McLean’s observations are new. His paper, which was published last year, shadows the professional writing of therapist, attorney, and mediator William (Bill) Eddy, who’s been elucidating the challenges posed by people with personality disorders in the court system (particularly family court) for decades. The monograph, moreover, cites Mr. Eddy’s work more than once. More recently, psychologist Tara Palmatier, whose online explications of the behaviors of the personality-disordered also draw on the pioneering observations of Mr. Eddy, has written volubly, accessibly, and explicitly about abuses, including legal abuses, committed by high-conflict people (as have a number of other psychologists who zero in on the narcissist personality). Many, if not most, of Dr. Palmatier’s patients have been the victims of such abuses and/or abusers, and some of their personal accounts (“In His Own Words”) appear on her blog.

Returning to Mr. McLean’s paper (which, again, echoes summations of both Mr. Eddy and Dr. Palmatier):

High conflict behavior…can be broadly described as behaviour which escalates rather than minimises conflict. The individual tends to escalate because they receive some kind of secondary gain from the dispute, but contrarily, they are inclined to blame others whilst perceiving themselves as the victim. The displayed emotion is often disproportionate to the dispute in question, and often there is the presence of poorly regulated emotions in the form of anger, impulsivity, and criticism of others, whilst it is not uncommon to observe controlling and manipulative behaviours.

High-conflict personalities are worse than liars; they’re liars who delude themselves that their lies are justified. They don’t reconsider or back down, and they’re capable of fomenting and sustaining conflict for years, including (especially in the case of narcissists) by gross fraud, smear tactics, and the enlistment of third parties to abet their frauds or participate in bullying their victims.

Because high conflict people tend to distort facts to suit their emotions, they often put a lot of energy into blaming other people for their cognitive distortions. The need to release internal distress results in reality-distorting defence mechanisms, such as projection and denial, which results in [their] failing to recognise their part in conflict. These cognitive distortions (also known as emotional facts) are frequently transferred to other people, which in turn often enables and exacerbates the behaviour.

In his paper, which I urge readers to consult, Mr. McLean includes actual transcript excerpts from cases heard in court that are both enlightening and impressive, and should encourage anyone in a legal clash with a high-conflict person who’s capable of obtaining the aid and representation of a mediator to consider it.

It’s deplorably the case that “rapport-building” is never an option in the drive-thru arena that is the restraining order process.

Examination of Mr. McLean’s professional insights into the specific personality disorders underscores how vexed resolving legal conflicts in this arena may be. He notes, for instance, that exposing a narcissist’s misconduct by confronting him or her with that misconduct or making him or her “look bad” will only fan the flames. He’s no doubt right, but in hearings that last mere minutes, painstaking assuagement of a narcissist’s ego isn’t practicable. Similarly he observes that among histrionics, “[e]xaggerated emotions and phoniness may be common initially.”

In a court process that’s concluded almost as soon as it’s begun, like a restraining order hearing, exaggerations and phoniness can’t be exposed through methodical cross-examination. The severity of a plaintiff’s allegations of apprehension may in fact excuse him or her from attending a hearing, altogether scotching the opportunity to expose his or her falsehoods by questioning.

Emphatically noteworthy, then, is the virtual absence from any but very lengthy and deliberate trials that are influenced by expertise like Mr. McLean’s of any chance to prosecute a capable defense against the frauds of high-conflict people.

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