Co-Parenting With a High Conflict Person

April 1, 2024

            Co-parenting with a high-conflict person (“HCP”) can be mentally, physically, emotionally, and even financially draining. HCPs frequently engage in patterns of high conflict behavior that increase, rather than reduce or avoid, conflict. The conduct can be intentional, defensive, sporadic, and even pathological.  If you are co-parenting with an HCP, you may notice that your ex seems to thrive on conflict and is energized with each emotionally fueled exchange, while you feel depleted, frustrated, and utterly baffled by the unfairness of it all.  You perhaps feel even more defeated when your therapist, friend or family law attorney advises you to “take the high road” for the children’s benefit which, in your view, lets the other parent get away with self-centered, toxic behavior.  While being the bigger person and not engaging in every disagreement may feel like rolling over and surrendering to bad behavior, it can be a strategic move. In most cases ignoring or avoiding the conflict denies  the HCP co-parent the gratification of siphoning your energy.

Controlling your Reaction

            One of the first steps to co-parenting with an HCP is to understand and accept that you cannot change the other parent. Much of the frustration that accompanies interacting with an HCP co-parent stems from the inability to accept how this person thinks and behaves. And as much as you plead, hope, try to reason, and wish the other parent would just “put the children first,” stop “fighting about everything” or “acting like a spoiled child” who demands his or her own way, the reality is this will probably never happen.  You cannot control or change the other parent.  All you can do is control how you respond.  Controlling your emotional response is a superpower.  The famous Stoic Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, recognized this superpower and successfully ruled Rome through plagues, invasions, and financial crisis from 161 CE to 180 CE. His collected personal writings, titled Meditations, contain actionable advice and discusses the importance and power of mastering emotions and the art of choosing perspective.  “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. Of course this isn’t easy, and it takes practice, determination, and focus, but the results can be powerful.  If you cease reacting and instead learn appropriate responses and tactics, you will be amazed at the benefits you achieve for yourself and for your children.

Boundaries

            Setting boundaries when co-parenting with an HCP is an important first step.  While the HCP co-parent will probably test the boundary if not walk right over it, your focus should be on responding appropriately so not to feed the HCPs negative energy while maintaining the boundary in a thoughtful, calm manner.  Remember, HCPs love conflict. Unless it is a true emergency, immediately responding to an HCP when you are filled with emotion is usually not the best approach.

Grey Rock and BIFF

            Professionals frequently recommend engaging in the “grey rock” strategy when dealing with an HCP.  Proponents of “grey rock” theorize that when dealing with an emotionally abusive, confrontational, or toxic person, withholding your reaction removes the individual’s ability to achieve what they perceive as power from causing discomfort and anger in you.    By showing no emotion when the conflict takes place, the idea is the person will become frustrated by your lack of a response and drop the intense behavior.  Granted, like a small child trying to get attention, the HCP may initially increase his/her antics to try to get a response from you, but consistently adopting the strategy of “grey rock” will most likely bore the HCP and he/she will seek attention and energy elsewhere.

            Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq. co-founder of the High Conflict Institute has authored several books on dealing with HCPs in divorce and co-parenting situations. Mr. Eddy coined the phrase “BIFF” to help guide individuals as they engage in verbal or written communication with a difficult co-parent.  Mr. Eddy’s advice is to keep the communication with the co-parent Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm. His book “BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People,” provides a wide range of conflict examples that can occur over social media, emails, texts and letters between co-parents and provides examples of how to respond in a BIFF-fashion.

Seek Support and Advice

            While you probably know intellectually not to take what the co-parent says personally, it can still sting and the constant negativity and challenges that accompany co-parenting with an HCP can take a toll on you mentally and physically.  It is important that you create a support system, which should include a mental health professional who can provide guidance and advice. If the co-parent begins to play games with the visitation schedule, child support, unauthorized travel, etc., seek the advice of an attorney. Frequently, the HCP co-parent will speak ill about you to the children or involve the children in conflicts. It is important that you do not further the children’s involvement in adult issues.  How you talk to your children when a parent bad mouths you or includes them in conflicts is dependent on the children’s ages. It is recommended that you seek guidance from a licensed mental health professional.  Thankfully there are many resources available that provide parents guidance in handling challenging dynamics so children can feel safe and supported and understand that a parent’s anger or behavior is not his/her fault.

            As with anything, the more you practice setting limits and managing how you respond, the more adept you will be at disengaging from the other parent’s energy drain and toxic behavior. You will have more energy for yourself, and your children and you will one day find yourself happily on the other side of what you once saw as a never-ending abyss.

            About the author:  Traci S. Mason practices family law and has advocated for and guided clients through critical life transitions both in and out of the courtroom for nearly two decades. She can be reached at mason@portersimon.com.