How personality disorders drive family court litigation

Posted in Divorce.

I was first exposed to the concept of personality disorders in 1980 when I was in training as a therapist at the San Diego Child Guidance Clinic at Childrens Hospital. The DSM-III had just come out and Axis II of the five diagnostic categories required the therapist to diagnose the presence or absence of a personality disorder. (The current DSM-IV uses the same approach.) I quickly learned (often the hard way) that the presenting problems on Axis I (e.g. depression, substance abuse) were simply replaced by new ones, if an underlying personality disorder was not addressed in therapy.

Now that I have completed several years as a family law attorney, I have frequently witnessed the same underlying issues in hotly contested family court litigation — yet these remain undiagnosed and, therefore, misunderstood. As those with personality disorders generally view relationships from a rigid and adversarial perspective, it is inevitable that a large number end up in the adversarial process of court. Since more flexible and cost-conscious people nowadays are resolving their divorces in mediation, attorney-assisted negotiation, or just by themselves, those cases remaining in litigation may be increasingly driven by personality disorders.

The Nature of a Personality Disorder

Someone with a personality disorder is usually a person experiencing chronic inner distress (for example fear of abandonment), which causes self-sabotaging behavior (such as seeking others who fear abandonment), which causes significant problems (such as rage at any perceived hint of abandonment) — in their work lives and/or their personal lives. They may function quite well in one setting, but experience chaos and repeated problems in others. They look no different from anyone else, and often present as very attractive and intelligent people. However, it is usually after you spend some time together — or observe them in a crisis — that the underlying distress reaches the surface.

As interpersonal distress, fear of abandonment, and an excessive need for control are predominant symptoms of personality disorders, they place a tremendous burden on a marriage. Therefore, intense conflicts will eventually arise in their marriages and the divorce process will also be a very conflictual process. In contrast to people who are simply distressed from going through a divorce (over 80% are recovering significantly after 2 years), people with personality disorders grew up very distressed. It is the long duration of their dysfunction (since adolescence or early adulthood) which meets the criteria of a personality disorder.

Usually they developed their personality style as a way of coping with childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment, an emotionally lacking household, or simply their biological predisposition. While this personality style may have been an effective adaptation in their “family of origin,” in adulthood it is counter-productive. The person remains stuck repeating a narrow range of interpersonal behaviors to attempt to avoid this distress.

A personality disorder does not usually go away except in a corrective on-going relationship — such as several years in a counseling relationship. Until then, the person may constantly seek a corrective experience through a series of unsatisfying relationships, through their children, or through the court process. In a sense, untreated personality disorders don’t fade away — they just change venue.

Personality Disorders Appearing in Family Court

Probably the most prevalent personality disorder in family court is Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) — more commonly seen in women. BPD may be characterized by wide mood swings, intense anger even at benign events, idealization (such as of their spouse — or attorney) followed by devaluation (such as of their spouse — or attorney).

Also common is Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) — more often seen in men. There is a great preoccupation with the self to the exclusion of others. This may be the vulnerable type, which can appear similar to BPD, causing distorted perceptions of victimization followed by intense anger (such as in domestic violence or murder, for example the San Diego case of Betty Broderick). Or this can be the invulnerable type, who is detached, believes he is very superior and feels automatically entitled to special treatment.

Histrionic Personality Disorder also appears in family court, and may have similarities to BPD but with less anger and more chaos. Anti-social Personality Disorder includes an extreme disregard for the rules of society and very little empathy. (A large part of the prison population may have Anti-social Personality Disorder.)

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