Why We Fall for High-Conflict Partners

High-conflict partners have a repeated pattern of increasing conflicts in their intimate relationships. This includes lots of all-or-nothing thinking (such as “my way or the highway”), unmanaged emotions (such as frequent yelling), extreme behaviors (such as throwing things in an argument) and preoccupation with blaming others (such as “it’s all your fault”). You would think that no one would want a partner like that in a romantic relationship. But people fall for them every day. Why?

Most people are not yet aware that such “high-conflict” people are out there in great numbers. We believe that they are 10-15% of the general population, and research suggests that they are a higher percentage of young adults (20’s and 30’s), which is prime dating age. If you’re in that age group, you especially need to be aware of three things we talk about in our book Dating Radar:

First, learn the patterns of high-conflict personalities: Narcissistic, Borderline, Antisocial and Histrionic, as we describe them in the book. In the extreme, these become personality disorders, which means that they are dysfunctional in interpersonal relationships, but lack self-awareness of their dysfunction and don’t try to change. And you can’t point out their self-defeating behavior or they will attack you verbally, or otherwise. In other words, they lack insight into their own behavior problems and no one can give them that insight. Just Forgetaboudit! But there are many more people with traits of these disorders who don’t have personality disorders, but are still difficult in relationships. Beware!

Second, they “jam your radar.” High-conflict people often come with a sugar coated personality, with lots of charm, good deeds and constant talk about their positive traits, so that you won’t notice that they can be very negative some of the time. We did a survey of people who had been in a relationship with a high-conflict person, and they told us that four of the most common early characteristics that jammed their radar were: charm, extreme (but fake) compatibility, overt sexuality/sensuality, and protectiveness. These behaviors threw them off and covered up the warning signs that became clearer later on.

Third, our own blind spots make us miss or over-ride the warning signs we may have seen. These include low self-esteem, loneliness or grieving, and naïve beliefs we learned growing up about relationships (such as “time and love” will change him or her, or “I” can change him or her—again, we say Forgetaboudit!).  At times when we are so desperate for love, these blind spots we carry with us can sabotage ourselves and make us fall for high-conflict partners.

There’s nothing “wrong” with you if you fall for a high-conflict partner. It happens all the time these days. Our parents or grandparents didn’t need as much radar as we need nowadays. People come without a history into all aspects of our lives and it’s easier to be deceptive, so we need to be more aware than ever before. But now that we have told you, it’s up to you to become informed and develop your own dating radar. It’s not hard and you’ll be glad you did.

Rachel Brown