“He’s just no good for you!”
“But I love him!”
“She’s trouble, I’m telling you!”
“But I love her!”
This is the kind of friendly advice that many people get from their friends or family when they are involved with a potentially high-conflict partner. And these are the kinds of responses that many people give their friends and family.
We estimate that about ten percent of the population has high-conflict personalities, which means that in close relationships they have: extreme behavior or threats, intense or unmanaged emotions, lots of all-or-nothing thinking and a preoccupation with blaming others. When one of our friends or family members gets into a relationship with an obviously high-conflict person, we want to just scream at them to get out as fast as they can. But they don’t. Why? This article addresses this question.
In her book Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, Pamela Meyer tells us that it is human nature to trust people:
Unless we’re given a reason to believe otherwise, human beings—Americans in particular—are generally hardwired to assume that what we are told is true and that what we see is real. When somebody says, “Oh, I sent you the report two days ago. You didn’t get my email?” we’re usually inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Charm and Love
Potentially high-conflict people are much more charming than average, because they have a lot to cover up on the negative side. Charm can be so intense and so flattering that it distracts and blinds you to the potential of trouble ahead. That’s what it’s intended to do, although it’s usually not as purposeful as that. This is just part of their personality—their automatic way of thinking, feeling and behaving.
Most people who’ve been in love with someone with a high-conflict personality report feeling an immediate and intense spark in the beginning. In fact, in a survey we are conducting for Dating Radar, a book we are writing on this topic, 77.5% of participants to date reported having an immediate spark with their troubled former romantic partner. Instead of recognizing the spark as a potential red flag foreshadowing future relationship trouble, it’s experienced as a positive sign to proceed without caution.
When we are yearning for something, we are much more easily manipulated by the promises, performances and words that people use. We want to hear how wonderful they are. We want to believe that the future with this person will be rosy. This human trait sets us up for the emotional messages of those who are more manipulative—and charming. We attract exactly what we think we need.
Sadly, many people have had many bad relationship experiences in their lives. If this has been true because of adverse childhood events (child abuse, trauma, loss of a parent), they may have extreme fantasies about future relationship partners. The average person will be unable to fulfill these fantasies for them, because real life for adults is more ordinary than the intensity they are looking for. So they are more vulnerable to the intensity that high-conflict people present, and more likely to mistake this intensity for love. Yet this can explain some very powerful negative attractions.
Also, if childhood family relationships (the basis for our adult love relationships) were abusive or neglectful, a person may have grown up without developing the radar for recognizing unhealthy relationship behavior.
There’s Always a Reason
One of the characteristics of high-conflict people is that they always have a believable reason for their bad behavior. They are used to being confronted with it and have been practicing their excuses for many years. “Someone else” treated them badly, so they had to respond in kind. They were “doing a good deed” for someone, which got in the way of doing their obligations. Their lack of planning is reframed to be a good quality: “spontaneity.” Their dishonesty is reframed to be “protecting your feelings.” “Certainly you understand.”
Denial is most commonly recognized as a characteristic of alcoholism and addiction. The person is so addicted to the substance, that he or she is blind to the harm its doing to them and their own body, finances, relationships, etc. We can understand this, because of the powerful influence of chemicals over the person’s thinking.
With relationships it can be very similar. The chemicals of love—especially for those feeling desperate and unworthy—can be very powerful and seductive.
One of the more surprising aspects of denial in matters of love is that when outsiders challenge it, the person in denial increases their defense of their relationship partner rather than doubting the relationship more. This may have deep biological roots, in that it helps for people to stick together who are being attacked by an outside enemy. Just because the “attack” is verbal nowadays, we tend to stick with the person with whom we have the most emotional relationship.
Even bad love may seem better than no love. This is the message our emotions seem to tell us. This is a compelling aspect of abusive relationships and why it is so hard for victims of such relationships to get away from their partners. And of course their partners are continually justifying their abuse and saying that no one else can “love you like I do.”
What Others Can Do
If you have a friend who appears to be in dating denial, it is important to remain supportive. A little confrontation may be helpful, but if your friend is highly defensive and has no interest in your opinion, it’s usually better to back off and keep your positive relationship going despite your different points of view. You don’t have to keep your opinions a secret, but don’t build the person’s resistance to your input. Someday he or she may welcome your thoughts and appreciate your understanding—if you’ve maintained your supportive friendship.
What You Can Do For Yourself
If you’re dating, it helps to wait at least a year before making any major commitments in a romantic relationship, such as living together, marriage or having children. If approximately ten percent of the population has a high-conflict personality, and if they are good at covering it up, it can take 6-12 months to see the extremes of behavior in a close relationship.
On the other hand, it can also take 6-12 months for one’s own dating denial to start to fade. After the charm wears thin and warning signs of extreme behavior start reaching the surface, it gets easier to see that the person may have two sides (at least).
Pay attention to advice from family and friends, and keep an open mind. Discuss their concerns with uninvolved third parties who can provide an unbiased view. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide what’s best for you.
Bill Eddy and Megan Hunter are co-founders of the High Conflict Institute. Bill is author of It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything and Megan is author of Bait & Switch: Saving Your Relationship after Incredible Romance Turns into Exhausting Chaos.