chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
January 22, 2023 Feature

Understanding How Your Client’s Personality Disorder Affects Your Case

Stephanie Newberg

Family law attorneys, who are working on divorce/separation and custody issues frequently come into contact with clients who struggle with communication problems, have difficulty managing their emotions, and experience a significant amount of interpersonal conflict with others; and particularly people they are ending their relationship and/or marriages with. There are a variety of reasons why clients can struggle with the grief and loss that come with ending an intact family or romantic relationship, but there are a proportion of people who struggle with their emotional states because they have personality disorders. This article will address and help delineate what it means to have a personality disorder, what the different types and clusters are, and how having a client or client’s spouse with a personality disorder may correlate to higher-conflict divorces and difficult attorney-client relationships.

Defining a Personality Disorder

Personality disorders are defined as how one thoughts, emotions, and interpersonal behavior deviate from the expectations of an individual’s culture. A personality disorder is generally defined as when a person exhibits a persistent, inflexible, pattern of maladaptive traits that make it hard for them to feel adjusted and function well in all types of relationships. It is important to note that there are traits of certain personality disorders that become more visible during a divorce and can quickly increase the conflict level. As two examples, people with borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder tend to manipulate and resort to extreme tactics to get their way. As a family law attorney, you will be up against this whether it is something that your own client has or whether your client’s ex-spouse or partner struggles with this. Boundaries, whether they be through a relationship or through a lawyer-client relationship, are extremely important for those with personality disorders. People with personality disorders who come to you will exhibit unhealthy thoughts and actions and therefore it is helpful to have a context and frame of reference, because it will help you know and understand who and what you are working with. This in turn, may help you understand why this client is engaged and immersed in such difficult conflict with their ex-partner or spouse.

Personality disorders were first developed and talked about in the 1800s when patients had outbursts of rage without psychosis. Personality disorders have evolved to include 10 different types. Each personality disorder has different symptoms and traits. Mental health professionals, as well as the American Psychiatric Association, have sorted them into three clusters: A, B, and C. I will elaborate on the various clusters and the traits that go along with each. As a family law attorney, your own client or client’s ex-spouse or partner may struggle with any of these.

Cluster A Personality Disorders

Cluster A is considered the eccentric/odd category. The eccentric and odd behaviors are manifested in social and relational difficulties. There is a continuum of how well people can function with these traits of Cluster A and some people have some traits but do not meet the full criteria for this cluster of a personality disorder. A person’s behavior in this cluster appear out of the norm, erratic, and can lead to social difficulties and extreme actions and somewhat unusual responses. Clients can get rigid and stuck in their perceptions and ways of reacting and they may have a lot of trouble taking their attorney’s or mental health professionals’ feedback. In addition, they get stuck in their perceptions and they can feel victimized and targeted. In addition, because of their struggles, their ex-partners tend to use litigation and want to limit their contact with their relationships with their children. Ex-partners can feel fearful of people with Cluster A personality disorder. This can then exacerbate the whole cycle and make clients more difficult and more validated in their feelings of paranoia. There are three types of personality disorders that are listed under this category.

Paranoid Personality Disorder

Paranoid personality disorder is defined as when people have difficulty trusting others, hold grudges for a long time, feel others are out to get them, refuse to open up or confide in others, perceive mundane remarks as a slight which can then create anger and backlashes. People are hard to get along with and are very suspicious and skeptical of what one says to them.

Schizotypal Disorder

Schizotypal disorder is when a person hears voices, may have auditory hallucinations, believes there are hidden messages and statements in all parts of society including all incoming media and technology. They also struggle with close intimate personal relationships. They present as having trouble with eye contact and they have trouble having congenial conversations. They appear awkward and feel like they don’t belong.

Schizoid Personality Disorder

Schizoid personality disorder makes people feel reluctant to be around others. They present as cold and unapproachable; they have difficulty expressing a broad range of emotions, including feeling happiness and joy. In addition, they have difficulty picking up on social cues and can interpret things in a very negative way. They are hard to read and don’t have very long committed relationships.

Tips for Cluster A

  • Stay consistent with feedback to your client, and continue to repeat the important messages.
  • Point out the facts to your clients, and try to have them let the facts guide them, not their emotions.
  • Reassure them that you are there for their best interests and are listening to them.
  • Give them specific examples about social norms and the best ways to act within those norms.

Cluster B Personality Disorders

The personality disorders listed in Cluster B are under the category of erratic and dramatic behaviors. People with disorders in this cluster, display unpredictable and dramatic reactions to events that wouldn’t seem to match the event or experience. They also have difficulty picking up on social cues and can interpret things in a very negative way.

Anti-social Personality Disorder

People with anti-social personality disorder show no regard for the needs of others or how they affect others’ emotional states or emotional needs. They generally don’t care about the safety of themselves or others. Because of this, they often lie, cheat, steal, and can manipulate others in ways to ensure they get what they want. They usually also display impulsive behaviors which can violate the rights of others, they can appear aggressive and mean, and they generally do not feel guilt or remorse for their actions. This type of personality disorder can also be considered a sociopathic personality. These people make people feel hurt and uncomfortable.

Borderline Personality Disorder

This is one of the most common personality disorders and can be a predictor for divorce. People with borderline personality disorders have fragile egos, difficulty with emotional regulation, show a lot of emotional reactivity, demonstrate self-destructive behaviors such as addictions, and self-mutilation. They struggle with feeling that people will abandon them and then it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People with borderline personality disorders will lash out and get enraged when people abandon them and try to put up boundaries with them even though it is incongruent with their fragile ego. When they sense any slight downturn or act of rejection, they can react with rage and angry outbursts. The symptoms of borderline personality disorder can result in mood problems, but the symptoms of it are usually relational. There are some other symptoms, such as holding a distorted self-image, that constantly influences their moods decisions and priorities. Engaging in impulsive actions like reckless driving, spending sprees, quitting jobs, ending relationships, feeling bored, irritable, and restless, thinking of suicide, and periods of disassociation lasting from a few minutes to a few hours are other signs.

Borderline personality disorder is one of the more common personality disorders that you might come across as a family law attorney. Although it is much more common in women than men, you may still see it and some of your male clients. For people with borderline personality disorder, everyday events can trigger significant changes in mood and emotional reactions. People with borderline personality disorder struggle with interacting with people in their relationships. They can seem confusing, difficult, and extreme. They tend to see things in black-and-white, and they have a hard time if they feel rejected to feel positively towards that person and then can turn against them easily. People with borderline personality disorders can create isolation for themselves because of their unstable relationships, and this, in turn, can create more mood struggles and anxiety.

Histrionic Personality Disorder

People with histrionic personality disorder demonstrate a constant need for attention. They can appear as dramatic, sexually promiscuous, and also sexually flamboyant with their dress and demeanor. They can speak in superlatives, with quick shifts in their emotions. One of the other characteristics of this personality disorder is that they may feel that the relationships are actually deeper and more meaningful than they actually are. This can make them surprised if their ex-spouse or partner wants to end the marriage or relationship.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

This is when people feel that their needs and feelings are more important than others, they fantasize about having power over other people, put other people down, and expect lots of praise. People with narcissism tend to seem arrogant and one up other people. They tend to be bullying, lack self-awareness and insight, and blame others, especially their ex-partners for when they have a hard time. It is hard for them to see their role in the conflict and in the problems of the relationship and it is generally very hard to work with narcissistic people in therapy and coparenting counseling.

Tips for Cluster B

  • Help them see that there are shades of gray in their family/custody situation.
  • Help them understand that there is another viewpoint and that doesn’t make them wrong or a bad person.
  • Help them understand that you are committed to helping them get a fair agreement.
  • Help them see that they have strengths and it’s okay if they don’t win every point.
  • Help them understand that you cannot be there in an unlimited manner, and have structure and boundaries around your schedule.

Cluster C Personality Disorders

Cluster C personality disorders are characterized by fearful and anxious feelings. People with a Cluster C personality disorder are afraid of many things and avoid confrontation, making it very hard to have healthy interpersonal relationships. They tend to be terrified of rejection or any criticism. They avoid others at work and social events. They feel unattractive or unworthy of affection. They tend to pick people who validate that and don’t treat them well and who reject them ultimately. They tend to put themselves in a position of being rejected.

Avoidant Personality Disorder

People with this disorder are terrified of rejection or any criticism. They avoid others at work and social events.. They tend to pick people who have been married before or who have had other relational problems in the past. They have trouble resolving problems and talking things through.

Dependent Personality Disorder

People with this disorder are motivated by the fear of having to take care of themselves or make decisions. They depend on others to make decisions and give them approval. They don’t feel good enough about themselves and have had other relational problems in the past, especially with friendships. Some other behaviors associated with dependent personality disorder are:

  1. Being unwilling to do everyday activities alone
  2. Seeking support and encouragement at any cost
  3. Avoiding disagreeing with people
  4. Remaining in abusive or unhealthy relationships
  5. Feeling the need to start new relationships if one ends

People with this disorder tend to risk staying in abusive relationships because they are terrified of confrontation and don’t have the confidence to be assertive and have their needs met.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

People with this disorder take perfection to extreme levels. They obsess over rules, cleanliness, and order. They are very detail oriented and are very inflexible and rigid. They also worry that something bad might happen if they don’t do all of their obsessive rituals. The rigidity can make them present as hard to have a relationship with and irritable and demanding.

Tips for Cluster C

  • Suggest that they don’t need to count every day and hour for things to be fair.
  • Ensure them they are capable of making decisions on their own.
  • Reassure them nothing bad will happen if they don’t make the perfect decision every time.
  • Encourage them to be more flexible and less rigid, and explain how that will help their parenting and outcome.


Hopefully, this summary of the various clusters and types of personality disorders has given you better insight into the in-depth struggles certain clients have and how they relate to their legal problems and needs.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

Stephanie Newberg

Conshohocken, PA

Stephanie Newberg, M.Ed., MSW, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, providing therapy for individuals, couples, and families; co-parenting counseling; and custody evaluations.