How Personality Disorders Drive Aggressive Divorce Litigation
by Bill Eddy‚ L.C.S.W.‚ Esq..
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 (now 2008 research indicates BPD is equally men and 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. Antisocial Personality Disorder includes an extreme disregard for the rules of society and very little empathy. (A large part of the prison population may have Antisocial Personality Disorder.)
Dependent Personality Disorder is common‚ but usually is preoccupied with helplessness and passivity‚ and is rarely the aggressor in court — but often marries a more aggressive spouse‚ sometimes with a personality disorder.
Cognitive Distortions and False Statements
Because of their history of distress‚ those with personality disorders perceive the world as a much more threatening place than most people do. Therefore‚ their perceptions of other people’s behavior is often distorted — and in some cases delusional.
Their world view is generally adversarial‚ so they often see all people as either allies or enemies in it. Their thinking is often dominated by cognitive distortions‚ such as: all or nothing thinking‚ emotional reasoning‚ personalization of benign events‚ minimization of the positive and maximization of the negative.
They may form very inaccurate beliefs about the other person‚ but cling rigidly to those beliefs when they are challenged because being challenged is usually perceived as a threat.
People with personality disorders also appear more likely to make false statements. Because of the thought process of a personality disorder‚ the person experiences interpersonal rejection or confrontation much more deeply than most people. Therefore the person has great difficulty healing and may remain stuck in the denial stage‚ the depression stage‚ or the anger stage of grief — avoiding acceptance by trying to change or control the other person.
Lying may be justified in their eyes — possibly to bring a reconciliation. (This can be quite convoluted‚ like the former wife who alleged child sexual abuse so that her ex–husband’s new wife would divorce him and he would return to her — or so she seemed to believe.) Or lying may be justified as a punishment in their eyes. Just as we have seen that an angry spouse may kill the other spouse— it is not surprising that many angry spouses lie under oath. There is rarely any consequence for this‚ as family court judges often believe the truth cannot be known — or that both are lying.
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