The topic of the malignant divorce is as endless as the black hole it represents. Not only do these couples find themselves dealing with abuse of all sorts, but our system is simply inadequate to handle the ferocity of what is going on. Earlier in this series, we outlined ways that people deteriorate under stress and become more dangerous as a consequence. After all, it takes only one seriously unhappy person to ruin it for everyone.
Here we will look more closely at keeping safe when under the threat of a malignant divorce.
The Truly Crazy Ex: If an ex spouse is frankly psychotic or a raging drug abuser, in many ways it can be easier. The courts like black and white problems, and who can blame them? A dangerously psychotic ex or an actively abusing addict poses an obvious threat to you and to the kids. The courts can take some measures here, which are sometimes effective, but not always. When an ex has a personality disorder or a term that I defined as a character trap, it all gets more murky and dangerous. Personality disorders by definition precede the divorce and are deeply maladaptive ways of functioning that can sometimes be identified and dealt with effectively by looking at a person's past history. A paranoid personality disorder or an antisocial personality disorder, for example, can be very dangerous in a divorce, but you (and sometimes the courts) can see it coming. Character traps are trickier.
The Character Trap: This is a useful term because it describes a less obvious type of dysfunction in a divorce. Some of the more common character traps are: The Victim, The Narcissist, The Control Freak and The Avenger; all of whom can be a source of danger. Characteristics found in this unhappy situation include, deceitfulness, a wish for revenge, a belief in one's victimhood, a tendency for paranoid thinking, an urgent need for control, a chronic feeling of desperateness, and a powerful sense of self righteousness, among others.
For those professionals reading this, think of a Character Trap as a Stress Induced Personality Disorder. In other words, under the intense stress of the divorce, a relatively normal but vulnerable person can develop severe psychological pathology. Another model that served as inspiration for the notion of character traps is Otto Kernberg's Borderline Personality Organization.
A character trap may be generated by a divorce and remain active for years until the stress subsides and he or she returns, more or less, to normal. The Intelligent Divorce: Taking Care of Yourself lays out ten different character traps, and what you can do about them. This problem is dangerous in divorce, because you may not see it coming. Here is a comment to this effect from our last malignant divorce post on Psychology Today from Anonymous:
I'm over a decade down this nightmare road and it has only escalated unfortunately. I am just
now realizing the magnitude of the type of person my ex has become. I'm nowhere close to living
again. The kids have a few more years in school but once they have served their purpose with
him and are of no use to him as a way to destroy me, I'm well aware that he may come after me
directly then. I'm not worried about myself, only saying that to give you an idea of the extent
of his mental illness and how his "blame," "I have to win," I'm the victim" etc mentality has
morphed. He didn't start out this bad. How I wish I could help others to keep from going down this
I feel so bad for my kids. He has destroyed huge parts of their lives and what should be normalcy to them.
This is a note from a person that I do not know. It could be that it was from a victim type or
it was exaggerated, but the text has a ring of truth that is worth unpacking. I obviously cannot
get into the head of the person in this note, but it is useful to generalize about cases like this one,
when an ex spouse (man or woman) is swimming in a toxic psychology that includes elements of
The Victim and The Avenger, a dangerous combination.
- Find a Therapist
- Topic Streams
- Get Help
RelationshipsLow Sexual Desire
Recently Diagnosed?Diagnosis Dictionary
- Psych Basics