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Why High Conflict People Are Often Stuck in the Past

Many high conflict people are constantly trying to re-write history.

Key points

  • People with high-conflict personalities often get stuck arguing with those around them about the past.
  • People with high-conflict personalities appear unable to go through the grieving and healing process, often getting stuck in the anger stage.
  • With a high-conflict personality, it may be best to avoid arguing about the past and focus on the present and future.

People with high-conflict personalities tend to have a pattern of conflict behavior that includes: a preoccupation with blaming others, a lot of all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behaviors that most people would never do (violence, lying, spreading rumors, etc.).

Many also appear to have personality disorders or traits from Cluster B, including borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, or antisocial. When I described their general pattern of behavior in 2008 in my book, It’s All Your Fault. I noted that a common characteristic was being “unable to accept or heal from a loss.”1 People are often surprised to recognize this. “Why can’t they just get over it?” I am often asked, especially when it's about something that seems minor or long ago.

Apparently, rather than go through the five-stage grieving and healing process, they make a big effort to re-write the past so they don’t have to experience the loss. They appear to spend a lot of time trying to persuade people that everyone else is wrong and the high-conflict person is right. This may be why they get stuck in conflicts so often and can’t seem to resolve them.

The Grieving and Healing Process

In the 1960s, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of the grieving process that all humans seem to go through in her book On Death and Dying.2 We can experience these stages whenever we are facing any major loss, such as a serious health problem, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a friend moving away, divorce, and so forth:

  1. Denial ("This can’t be true; I don’t believe it.")
  2. Anger ("If this is true, then I’m going to fight it every inch of the way.")
  3. Bargaining ("What if I change now?" Bargaining against the inevitable loss; too little, too late.)
  4. Depression (Person turns inward, feels pain of the loss, may retreat and avoid most people for a while.)
  5. Acceptance (The pain of the loss subsides and no longer stops the person in their tracks.)

Grieving and healing is not a smooth step-by-step process, as people may go back and forth in the stages for months or even years, depending on the nature of the loss. But usually, within a year, people are moving through this process.

Prolonged Grief Disorder

If someone has experienced the death of a loved one and is making no progress through the grieving process, then they may have prolonged grief disorder, a diagnosis in the DSM-5-TR, as described by the American Psychiatric Association:

Grief is a natural response to the loss of a loved one. For most people, the symptoms of grief begin to decrease over time. However, for a small group of people, the feeling of intense grief persists, and the symptoms are severe enough to cause problems and stop them from continuing with their lives. Prolonged grief disorder is characterized by this intense and persistent grief that causes problems and interferes with daily life.3

A wide range of people may get stuck in prolonged grief for a wide variety of reasons. However, people with high conflict personalities seem to take out their inability to grieve on those close to them. This appears to be especially true for them when a parent passes away, and they become quite dysregulated for a while.

Stuck in the Anger Stage

They seem to get stuck in the anger stage, so any vulnerable feelings they may have quickly shifted to anger at those around them. This is not a conscious process; you shouldn’t point it out to them, or they will get even angrier. This means they don’t seem to complete the grieving process and therefore carry around a lot of unresolved upsets. If you focus their attention on how they are feeling, they may feel worse and even blame you for how they are feeling.

Waiting for them to “get it off their chest” or to “get to the root of the problem” may be unrealistic because they may be stuck in these unresolved emotions. Their inability to grieve and heal may be the real root of the problem. Focusing them on thinking and doing may be much more effective, especially in a high-conflict situation like a divorce, workplace conflict, or neighbor dispute. “Let’s look at our choices now rather than arguing about the past.”

Possible Attachment Issue

People with high-conflict personalities may have grown up with insecure attachments in childhood and possibly unresolved traumas. There may have been no one around with whom they could safely share their sadness at the losses they were experiencing. Some people with insecure attachments become stuck in anger (“acting out” their frustration, such as high-conflict people), and others may become stuck in sadness (“acting in,” such as with depression, self-harming behaviors).

In either case, the best solution is for them to find people, such as a therapist, who can help them feel safe with the intensity of their emotions, including anger and sadness, so that they can heal and move forward in their lives. In many ways, that is what a therapist can do that a romantic partner or workplace friends cannot do, although they can be supportive.


Don’t be surprised that some people can’t just “get over it” with some of life's problems. If they have high conflict personalities, they may attack those around them out of an inability to grieve and heal their losses. In this case, when they want to argue about the past or blame you inappropriately for some loss (sometimes of their own creation), don’t get into an argument with them. Just understand that they can’t help themselves and focus the discussion on something in the present or future.

If you’re a family member or friend, encourage the upset person to seek therapy. But don’t be surprised if they don’t go because high-conflict people have difficulty seeing themselves as part of their own problems. At least with this knowledge, you can avoid making it worse.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


1, B. Eddy, It’s All Your Fault! 12 Tips for Managing People Who Blame Others for Everything. (Scottsdale, AZ: Unhooked Books, 2008), 16.

2. E. Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying: What the dying have to teach doctors, nurses, clergy and their own families. (New York: McMillan Publishing Company, 1969).

3. American Psychiatric Association website. Retrieved on March 30, 2023 from:

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