High Conflict Divorce Part 2: Personality Disorders
How Personality Disorders Affect Divorce
A hallmark characteristic of high conflict personalities (HCPs) or people with personality disorders is the belief that they’re entitled to more and are better than anyone else. But the assertive or even aggressive nature of these personalities is a mask they wear to hide the deep insecurity and lack of self-esteem that exists at the deepest levels of themselves. Most people in a relationship with these personalities never understand this deep void in their spouse, parent, sibling, or coworker. Instead, their experience is one of confusion, fear, abuse, and in many cases, winding up as an unknowing enabler. The impenetrable psychological walls they build and their grandiose persona are mechanisms HCPs use to control and manipulate their environment, whether it’s their spouse or child or by being the slippery overachiever at work who climbs to the top of the corporate ladder, becoming the envy of those who know them. Chaos in the lives of these personalities is as essential to them as air to breathe, a concept which was incredibly difficult for me to wrap my head around. But it answered so many questions about my mother’s personality and her inability to have meaningful relationships with anyone.
We all know personality disordered people
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. According to the largest study ever conducted by US National Institutes of Health on personality disorders about 10 percent of the population has NPD, BPD or a combination of both. Among those who met the criteria for BPD, 53 percent were women and 47 percent were men. Of those who met the criteria for NPD, 62 percent were men and 38 percent were women. And, among people who met the criteria for just one of these disorders, nearly 40 percent met the criteria for both. In the case of my own mother who has narcissistic personality disorder, she also has borderline personality disorder, anorexia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, she is a hoarder, and has been taking prescription painkillers for years. Meeting her for the first time she would appear charming, quite social and very down to earth with a great personality – the same mask most high conflict personalities wear in public – but people close to them live with someone quite different. If you blame yourself for not seeing the signs sooner, don’t. These disorders are difficult to diagnose and their behaviors often aren’t apparent until months after a relationship begins.
HCPs instinctively assess everyone they meet, like auditioning actors for a play, to draw a bead on their personality and the value that person can provide. The primary attachments they usually form are to people who are compassionate, sensitive and caring or who show vulnerability because they are easier to manipulate. What everyone who’s been in a relationship with a HCP usually finds is that the person they came to know is not the same person they met at the beginning of the relationship. Once HCPs are comfortable in a relationship, the mask gradually comes off, exposing their true personalities. The duality present in these personalities is quite amazing and equally disturbing but it is this duality that can make divorcing a high conflict personality so difficult.
Maintaining relationships with HCPs isn’t a problem provided you’re willing to sacrifice yourself and conform to their version of reality. We may be born into or end up in relationships with HCPs, but most of us will not choose to remain in them. For years after I left home as a young adult my mother never gave up trying to control me or my life and it wasn’t until I understood who and what she was that I was able to stop blaming myself and take my life back.
Divorcing A Personality Disordered Spouse
Dealing with difficult divorces today is less about actual legal issues and more about handling difficult personalities. HCPs often don’t like negotiating because it interferes with the power and control they need to maintain over their lives. Regardless of who initiates the divorce the HCP will make their spouse the target of their abuse and their behavior will be predictably… Unpredictable. In my experience HCPs react to divorcing one of two ways – they either hire an aggressive attorney and begin a full-on assault of their spouse, or they agree to participate in divorce mediation believing the lack of legal authority will allow them to control the outcome. In either case the HCP is looking to gain an ally or advantage and since attorneys – on both sides – will typically lack the ability to recognize personality disorders HCPs find the advantage they’re seeking which can mark the beginning of a long, difficult journey.
In reality HCPs aren’t as concerned about the financial or logistical outcome of a divorce as they are about protecting their public persona and hurting or punishing their spouse. This is the intent behind the lies and drama they create which often works well for them and unfortunately, to their advantage in Family Court. Just like at the beginning of a new relationship HCPs display their best personality for the court, and when their spouses understandably react to defend themselves the spouse becomes the one who looks unreasonable, disorganized or even irrational. The personality disordered have the energy and will to play out this type of drama for as long as the court will allow. They aren’t concerned about the consequences of their behavior on their own life nor do they care about the impact on the lives of their spouse or children.
As a divorce mediator who works with high conflict divorce cases I’ve seen the mediation process help to create considerably better outcomes in a shorter amount of time versus the aggressively litigated route but my success with high conflict divorces isn’t because I’m special. It’s the result of my ability to understand these disorders and manage them appropriately during the negotiation process. Truthfully, negotiating skill and behavior management aren’t the only factors that contribute to making such divorces easier. What’s equally important – but many spouses of HCPs are never told this – is that specific modifications to their behavior too can have a big impact on managing a relationship with a high conflict spouse both during and after their divorce. The behavior of a HCP usually doesn’t ever change but changing how you interact with them can make a huge difference.
Understanding this is how I accomplished something many people told me couldn’t be done: Controlling the impact my mother’s disordered personality had on my life.
In my next article, I’ll talk about co-parenting with a HCP and the impact of these personalities on children.