Although this post is published under my name (Dr Tara J. Palmatier) it was actually written by one of my clients who is also a doctor in another health field. A couple weeks ago, he sent a diagram (included below) he created to discuss during our upcoming session.
I was blown away. The diagram captures the abuse, blame shifting, distortion, rage and manipulation cycles that he experiences in his marriage week in and week out.
After we discussed the diagram, I asked my client if he’d be willing to write a legend for it and he graciously agreed. I suspect that many of you reading this will, sadly, find what he describes all too familiar. Again, the following post and diagram were respectively written and created by one of my clients who prefers to remain anonymous.
Sorting Out the High Conflict Phases: A Personal Observation
by Anonymous Client
Most likely if you are reading this, you or someone you know is involved with a high-conflict individual and subsequently dealing with a broken or difficult relationship. If you are a guy, you probably just perked up when you read the word “broken.” Let’s face it, if you’re like me, you probably like to fix things. Fixing things can be simultaneously challenging and rewarding. But what can you do when you find yourself in an abusive, illogical and unrepairable relationship?
You could just head for the hills, but that isn’t always possible, especially in the beginning. Things are more complicated than just escaping your self-centered partner. There’s children, family, friends, finances, religious beliefs and numerous other variables involved. Even your own “manipulated” self-mental assessment regarding your accountability for the conflict may keep you from leaving. I mean, the person you thought you knew and trusted is telling you it’s all your fault, right? As a result, many of us are not so quick to leave and, therefore, have to deal with the conflict for a while. We need to seek other options.
I have been involved in health care for over twenty years and I frequently encounter patients who have medical problems that can’t be “fixed.” It is undeniable that some individuals deal with their situations much better than others. Some are in constant turmoil while others seem to have an inner peace about themselves. So the obvious question is, what makes the difference between the two groups?
It has been my observation that individuals who deal with things most effectively are on a journey to learn. They actively seek relevant knowledge regarding their problems. But equally important, they have perspective. They are able to see the bigger picture. This awareness enhances their coping skills. More simply stated, if you know what’s going on and where you might be headed, you feel better. You may not like your circumstances any better, but you feel better internally. Which group would you want to be in?
Psychological War is Hell
Over the last few years, I have read numerous articles regarding abusive relationships. I could relate to the manipulative tactics that high-conflict individuals use to abuse and control their partners. However, I had difficulty seeing the bigger picture. I knew where I had been, but I couldn’t tell where I was going. Or, could I? After reflecting on my own years of adversity, I began to recognize distinct repetitive phases to each conflict in my marriage. Each phase seemed to serve a particular role. With this revelation, I decided to try and add some perspective by analyzing the phases. The result of my efforts is the flow chart described below. If you are prone to flashbacks and nightmares I suggest you stop reading here! (Legend continues below diagram).
Tactics. This is your partner’s weapons arsenal. The list is long. She is clearly a psychological weapons specialist. Just like countries spend vast amounts of resources evaluating the weapons of other countries, you need to do so as well. I will not detail the tactics individually, but take the time to learn the weapons she uses so that you can identify them and thereby counter them more effectively in future conflicts.
The first two phases are knee jerk responses. Your significant other has been the way she is for a long time. When things don’t go her way, she just goes on autopilot and bad things happen. Let’s break it down.
Perceived Insult. It is easy to think of this as the “trigger.” Problem is, this is no ordinary trigger. It is a hair-trigger. Anything that portrays her as less than perfect or holds her accountable will trigger her for sure. You need to evaluate what triggers your partner. If you were the one that actually triggered the response, it will be easier to identify. However, sometimes it wasn’t your finger on the trigger. More on that later.
Disproportionate Rage. This phase could easily be labeled “shock and awe.” You will be in awe because in your mind the perceived insult will not warrant the level of rage you receive. If your infraction is deemed serious enough, she is most likely to use nuclear weapons first. Don’t be surprised if you are subjected to flying objects, yelling, divorce threats, and false 911 calls. There will definitely be memories that last a lifetime!
After the mushroom cloud clears, things will de-escalate slowly. This may take hours, days or even weeks sometimes. The significant difference between the knee jerk phases and the remaining ones is that the events and conversations will become very calculated and manipulated on her part. Illogical arguments and distorted views will definitely wreak havoc on your mental faculties.
Defensive / Retaliation. This is basically a scaled down, less violent version of the previous phase. Cluster bombing comes to mind. She has done nothing wrong! You are wrong! It’s just that simple. Anything you say is wrong. Even an apology would be wrong. Your recollections of the events are inaccurate. Nobody has ever treated her as poorly as you do.
She claims that all of her friends, doctors, therapists, parents and the mailman agree with her. They all know you are an abusive jerk. She claims she will continue to do whatever she wants. You will pay for your infraction. She is the judge, jury and executioner all in one. You are not able to get a word in edgewise at this point. All you can do is hunker down and let the bombs fall.
Playing Nice. Are you willing to surrender? Here is your chance. She will approach you in an eerily calm manner and pretend like nothing ever happened. She will then offer some type of phony apology as well as a dose of blame. The old, “I’m sorry, but. . . it’s really your fault.” Never mind that she has repeated the same actions numerous times. That doesn’t matter. You are suppose to take her at her word that she is genuine this time.
All you have to do is admit that her actions were your fault and you need to change your ways. She will even let you speak at this point. Nothing you say will be correct but at least she will pretend to listen. Offers for make-up sex might even be made to facilitate your compliance with the program.
Secondary Arguments. If you decide to withhold raising the white flag, you will find your battlefronts broadening in scope as you engage in “topic warfare.” The topics of conflict will stray far from the original infraction. Every problem you have encountered since the beginning of your relationship will come up. Any sensitive information you have shared with her will be misconstrued against you. The attacks become very personal in nature.
You don’t make enough money. You’re a lousy lover. Every relationship she has ever had is better than this one. It goes on and on until she gets a very pivotal reaction I call the “nugget.” The nugget is any bad or politically incorrect reaction on your part. Heaven forbid if you defend yourself or call her a name. Unknowingly, you have just been read your Miranda rights. Anything you say can and will be used against you. As soon as she gets the nugget, this theater of operation is over.
Pseudo-Victim Creation. The nugget is the catalyst for the creation of the pseudo-victim. You are now outgunned and dealing with a psychological special operations unit. Her skills at being a professional victim are so well honed that you will even start to doubt yourself. Things get very dramatic.
She will cry, sulk and need to be consoled by friends. The guilt trips she lays on you are very intense. It has always been her, that has fought for the relationship while you have never even cared! What have you ever done for her? How can you be such a jerk? You use her as a beast of burden!
Role Reversal. At this point she has successfully taken the spotlight off of herself and put it on you. Things have come full circle. Her original reactions are completely “off topic.” You now find yourself defending yourself about one of the other issues brought up in the previous phase. You will find yourself shell-shocked and not even knowing what you are really arguing about at this point.
She will continue to repeat the cycles from “playing nice” to the “role reversal” until she is satisfied that she has either won the war or some other “hot topic” comes along and takes precedence.
The Cloud. This is basically a cold war phase. If you accepted her phony apology, you may have been able bypass the Secondary Arguments, Pseudo-Victim Creation and Role Reversal and leap frog directly to this phase. There are no direct conflicts in the Cloud, but uncertainties are abound. The underlying hostilities are still there. There is never any real resolution or compromise to the previous situation. There is only pseudo-forgiveness. Even though the prior conflict is not talked about, it will certainly come up again in some other secondary argument phase.
Establishing a demilitarized zone and avoiding each other may provide some degree of normalcy and peace to your life. Like being in a real cloud, the visibility is poor. You have no clue what the next conflict will be about or when it will occur. If you are a veteran, you will learn to be on a mental red alert at all times.
Covert Route. This happens when you weren’t the one who pulled her trigger. It is essentially a shortcut to the secondary argument phase. An example would be when you experience “topic warfare” minutes after you get home from work. An unknowing partner may think she is just in a bad mood, but in actuality, somebody insulted her during the day and she is taking it out on you to make herself feel better. A clue to confirm this is that she is mad at everybody and not just yourself.
Submissive Route. As previously noted, if you are willing to accept her phony apologies and “drink the Kool-Aid”, you can take a shortcut to the Cloud phase. Just remember, there is no amnesty granted. You still caused her to act poorly in the beginning. You are basically on parole. If you violate your parole, the conflict will immediately pick up where it left off.
Don’t Be a P.O.W.
In a normal relationship, one would be able to eliminate this cycle of conflict through understanding and compromise. However, with high-conflict individuals, this cycle is deeply ingrained within their DNA. As described above, there is no compromise. There is merely a pattern of distortion and manipulation designed to blame you for any lack of responsibility or accountability on their part. Absolute control of the partner is the goal. This is very difficult to identify and understand in the beginning.
Accordingly, it is easy to falsely blame one’s self or to simply justify their bad behaviors. Only through careful observation can one begin to perceive the true intent of your partner’s manipulative actions. In my case, the visualization of a flowchart added a tangible realization as to why the conflicts progressed as they did.
These are, of course, my own personal observations and interpretations. Your personal flow chart could vary from mine. Nevertheless, I suggest you do your own case study and study the trends. Your epiphany might just give you a different perspective. You may not like your circumstances any better, but you may be better able to cope with them until other options are available.
Thanks again to my client for this very insightful diagram and its explanation.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Coaching individuals through high-conflict divorce and custody cases is also an area of expertise. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for more information.
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