Ask any lawyer or family law professional experienced in litigating child custody matters and you’ll learn that it seems that nearly every parent involved in such litigation is difficult, demanding, overly emotional, and unreasonable. Such professionals may tell you that parents litigating child custody can be stuck in a cycle of conflict with their co-parent and that it may even appear that they are motivated and driven to be in conflict and by the conflict. Could it be these parents are truly psychologically challenged and broken? Could it be that what family law professionals see are not challenged/broken people but, instead, extremely stressed people? Could it be that what happens when people engage the legal system and put their children’s interests before the court creates an inordinately complex emotional landscape to traverse?
The answer to all these questions is “yes” and “it depends.” The truth is that all kinds of parents litigate custody but that the challenge of custody litigation can bring even the most well-adjusted and highly functional person to their knees.
Often, because those litigating custody can be so challenging to work with, professionals who work with parents litigating custody believe that their client (or more likely the opposing client) has a personality disorder. They attribute the difficulty to having this type of disorder. So, what is a personality disorder? To understand this first let’s understand what personality is.
Psychologists think of someone’s personality as the broad based, pervasive, familiar, and typical ways someone experiences emotion, interpersonal interactions and how they organize their perceptions and their behavior. Personality might be thought of as the “kind of person I am” psychologically, emotionally, and interpersonally. Everyone has a personality. Even though everyone has a personality, most people are also somewhat flexible and able to shift how they interact with the world in a healthy manner depending on the needs of a situation. However, some people are not flexible, and they cannot shift easily to the demands of a situation or an interaction. In fact, faced with situations that call on one to be supple and flexible, some people become even more fixed in how they perceive, react, respond, and organize their emotions and their perceptions. Such individuals likely have what is known as a “personality disorder.” This means that how they perceive and organize their world is not something that they can shift or modify when situations might require this. Rather than serving them well and in a healthy manner that fosters coping and adaptation, their personality fixes them in place and the limits of their coping are readily seen, most often by others. This is because the individual with the personality disorder tends not to see themselves as “the problem” but, instead, see others as “the problem.” Their disorder is not experienced as unwanted or alien to them even though those with whom they interact can readily see the maladaptive ways they are interacting, processing, and coping.
Getting back to parents who litigate custody, it is inarguable that when people are locked in conflict with their co-parent, the stress and angst is real, palpable, and unpleasant. When people face protracted situations that are stressful, anxiety producing and uncertain, it is normal for them to struggle and to become less flexible, less psychologically supple, and more prone to perceiving and experiencing in a more fixed and rigid fashion. Thus, it is common for one’s personality to become less flexible, adaptive, and able to respond to the demands of a situation. It is no wonder, then, that so many family law professionals perceive clients as having personality disorders. Of course, some clients have these disorders. The majority, however, are people under stress and when under stress they display what may appear to be a personality disorder when what they are displaying is their personality under extreme external stress.
In the family law arena, the types of personality and personality disorders especially challenging for professionals and for co-parents are known as “Cluster B” personality disorders. This cluster includes (borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, anti-social personality disorder and histrionic personality disorder). This cluster of personality types and the disorders of these personality types are thought of as being personalities that spawn conflict and be highly reactive, even over-reactive, to conflict. These individuals tend to volatile and to behave in inappropriately provocative ways. Therefore, these are the personality styles that are particularly vexing to the family law professional and the co-parent of someone with that style or disorder. Let’s look at each of these personality styles.
Borderline personality is a style in which the individual has a great deal of difficulty regulating their emotions and modulating their emotions. Such individuals tend to have an “all or nothing” style and they tend to see themselves and others is categories such as good and bad/black and white. Such people tend to have problems with gray areas so, for example, if they are angry with someone, while angered they perceive the other person as all bad and cannot experience the positive ways they may experience them when they are not in conflict with them. It is no wonder that when interacting with an individual with a borderline personality that people feel dumbfounded and confused by them since they seem to change precipitously and, in that change, demonstrate precious little remnants of the way they may have acted or behaved previously.
Narcissistic personality where the individual organizes their experiences and perceptions around what they want/need/feel/think. Such individuals are often experienced as very selfish and self-oriented. They are experienced as lacking empathy and the ability to imagine what others might feel. Also, they tend to struggle with a sense of mutuality in their relationships and it is hard for them to recognize how their behavior impacts others while being focused instead on how others make them feel. Narcissists are focused on getting their needs met and often lack the awareness that other people may have different needs or may need their needs met in ways that are different that the narcissistic individual. Needless to say, interacting with such people can be highly frustrating, especially when at odds with them.
Anti-social personality is an especially particularly challenging type of personality disorder. It is characterized by highly impulsive, irresponsible, callous, and often criminal behavior. These individuals tend to reject social and societal norms and are often unable to engage in mutually satisfying interactions with others. They will typically be manipulative, deceitful, and reckless, and do not care for, let alone recognize, other people’s feelings. The rights of others are disregarded, and others are treated with a callous indifference to their feelings and needs. Instead, others are viewed for how they may be used or how they may be a tool or agent to get one’s goals accomplished, and one’s needs met. In family law matters, people with this personality disorder tend to be abusive towards their partners.
Histrionic personality is characterized by interpersonal functioning in which extreme displays of intense emotion are common, typically to attract attention and notice. Such individuals are often described as seductive, sexualizing, flirtatious, charming, manipulative, impulsive, lively, and uninhibited. These personality disorders are commonly described as dramatic, excitable, erratic, or volatile. They are especially prone to acting out when they are not getting the attention they desire and when they feel uncomfortable and out of place.
If you, the reader, recognize in the descriptions of these personalities elements of how you behave, interact, and organize your world, that should not surprise you. Remember these personalities, like all personalities, have plusses and minuses. After all, who amongst us is not, at times, excitable, selfish, impulsive, insensitive, and emotionally over-reactive? These are normal elements of human behavior for all of us that become especially problematic when the style is fixed, rigid and entrenched.
Now that we’ve discussed and briefly reviewed the four higher-conflict personality styles, keep in mind that people are not defined by diagnoses or labels. Instead, people are defined by behaviors and interactions. Therefore, when thinking about an individual (such as a co-parent), it is best not to think in terms of diagnoses such as these specific disorders but instead in terms of behaviors. After all, no two people with specific psychological diagnoses are exactly alike so the diagnosis when used to describe someone becomes an inexact stereotype that will lead to over-generalizing and to objectifying someone (and no one wants to be seen as or treated like an object). Also, for the parent, you are not co-parenting with a diagnosis, you are co-parenting with a person. Therefore, rather than thinking in terms of diagnoses which are broad categories, it is helpful to think in terms of who that individual is, how they behave, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are and how who you are as a co-parent interacts with who they are. A diagnosis doesn’t tell us how anyone handles any problem or situation. So, while these terms may be helpful in establishing a very broad sense of who someone is (a 30,000-foot view), it is only by looking at behavior (a sea level view) that we come to see who someone is.
As stated earlier, when parents litigate the well-being and best interests of their children, the stakes could not be higher. In my nearly 40 years of working in this field as a forensic psychologist, nothing brings out the ire in a parent like the belief that the children’s other parent is harming the children or making life difficult. And, because for most parents nothing in the world matters more than their children, when a parent feels threatened in this manner, blood boils. On top of this, when parents cannot reach agreements and accords and when they cannot solve problems privately and must go to Court to seek solutions, it is common to feel helpless, out of control, confused and scared. What happens when people feel helpless, out of control, confused, and scared? They tend to psychologically regress, become rigid, lean on less flexible, adaptive, and complicated methods of coping. Instead, they tend to engage familiar and more fixed ways of coping. Put another way, when people feel helpless, out of control, confused and scared, they may display what appears to be elements of personality disorders. Thus, it should not be a surprise that family law professionals believe that they encounter many parents they see as displaying problematic personalities and personality disorders. Although those with such disorders are less likely to problem solve with their co-parent and less able to flexibly negotiate and compromise, the truth is that the nature of child custody litigation brings out less mature behavior in parents. This, on top of the reality that they must interact with a system that is confusing, confounding, and impersonal, it is easy to understand how otherwise psychologically healthy people appear to be psychologically unhealthy while they are in the midst of litigation.
Personality disorder is important and needs to be understood. However, it is even more important that we not characterize others by labels but instead by behavior and function. It is also of vital importance to understand how the stresses and rigors of child custody litigation can make even the most psychologically healthy person appear to have the most worrisome personality disorder.