When you think about ill-fated relationships, it’s most likely the perennial liar or cheater who stands out as riskiest. Your warning system may not be as attuned, however, to the two types whose personalities could actually predict more trouble ahead. Few studies investigate the odds for divorce among men and women with personality disorders, or long-standing maladaptive ways of perceiving and interpreting one’s own self, feeling and expressing emotions, relating to others, and controlling impulses. However, those that do indicate that the warning signs for trouble may lie in these deep-seated tendencies.
Previous research on divorce rates of 7 of the 11 personality disorders shows that, as a group, by age 35 each has a greater likelihood of marital dissolution than people without personality disorders. However, there were no statistics available on people past that age until a 2012 publication by Washington University in Saint Louis psychologist Krystle Disney and collaborators. Their study included only adults in the 55 to 64 age range. These older individuals make a better group to study because with more years behind them, they have a greater likelihood of beginning—and ending—their marriages.
Unlike other challenges to mental health, the personality disorders do not represent a particular pattern of “illness” that can be “cured.” Individuals with these disorders develop symptoms that reflect the evolution of personality traits over the course of their lives. Their traits, which are a part of their overall psychological make-up, are the same as people who are mentally healthy. However, their personality traits take on a particularly maladaptive form. If they are able to get into close relationships with others, their distorted sense of self, unstable emotions, or out-of-control behavior mean that any long-term partners must be willing and able to put up with a great deal of turmoil, especially when life circumstances aggravate their already precarious hold on their feelings and behavior.
Among individuals with personality disorders who may seem to pose the greatest threat to long-term relationship quality, it’s probably the psychopath who comes to mind. We also know that although people with psychopathic tendencies are good at reading other people’s emotions, it’s highly unlikely that they act in ways that are truly empathic or caring. The typical portrayal of the person with borderline personality disorder, similarly, suggests that this is hardly the ideal life partner, or even roommate. Individuals with this disorder have a highly unstable sense of self, are poor at establishing or respecting boundaries, and tend to see other people as all good or all bad, among their other characteristics.
As Disney and her team point out, people with these two personality disorders have high rates of marital unhappiness, separation, and divorce. Both disorders share the qualities of involving tempestuous and impulsive behavior, high levels of hostility, and difficulties with impulse control. The fact that these two disorders are typically singled out from among the other personality disorders may not, however, reflect the fact that they have the only fatal flaws. Instead, these are the two personality disorders with the greatest amount of attention in the research literature, leaving the divorce rates among people with other disorders relatively unknown.
Among the over 1,200 participants in the Disney and team study, all were living in the St. Louis vicinity and had agreed to be part of a larger study in which they would be followed up over time. The sample was roughly 50-50 male-female, and one-third of the participants were divorced, with the remainder married (57%), widowed (8%) or separated (2%). Their racial distribution mirrored that of the St. Louis area with two-thirds being Caucasian, 30% African American, and 3% drawn from other racial backgrounds. All were between the ages of 55 and 64. To get at their personality disorder symptoms, the researchers took a comprehensive approach, asking participants to rate themselves, to have others rate them, and then to be rated by a professionally-trained interviewer administering a standardized assessment instrument.
Fortunately, the researchers decided to include levels of symptoms endorsed by participants rather than limiting themselves to what would be a much more narrowly-defined group fitting the criteria for a “disorder.” It’s not a good idea to diagnose someone else, particularly someone you’re close to or thinking of becoming close to. However, because the study looked at people who didn’t meet the threshold for a disorder, the results are more likely to be applicable to a broader range of adults, including those you know, or maybe even you, yourself.
After performing the usual statistical controls, Disney and her co-authors developed a model that predicted the divorce rates associated with each of the major personality disorders, factoring gender into account. This left them with two personality disorder symptoms, histrionic and paranoid, showing the strongest positive relationship to divorce consistently across all three sets of measures. Symptoms of avoidant personality disorder negatively predicted divorce.
By far, the strongest predictors of divorce likelihood were histrionic personality disorder symptoms. We don’t hear a great deal about histrionic personality disorder these days; in fact, it was almost discarded as a personality disorder from DSM-5 altogether and may yet be in the future. However, histrionic personality disorder has a rich history going back to the work on hysteria by Freud in his early forays into neurosis. The term hysteria, from the Greek for “wandering uterus,” was conceived by psychoanalysts as a condition in which individuals (typically women) suffer from exaggerated emotional highs and lows, are anxious and preoccupied, and are overly impressionable and impressionistic.
In its present-day iteration, the symptoms of histrionic personality disorder are in some ways very similar to narcissism to the point that some researchers believe the two to be virtually indistinguishable. However, people who would have a high histrionic symptom index would, in addition to being self-centered, be sexually seductive in an indiscriminate manner, overly theatrical, capable only of superficial feelings and relations with others, and unhappy when they are not the center of attention.
Thus, it's the people with histrionic personality disorder who are most likely to qualify for the distinction "drama queen." Their additional quality of being overly impressionistic also adds to the mix, meaning that individuals with histrionic symptoms make decisions on the basis of limited evidence. In other words, they jump to conclusions, often basing their decisions on gut instincts rather than careful analysis.
The symptoms of histrionic personality disorder hardly sound like the qualities most people would find workable for a long-term relationship. Although people high in histrionic qualities may have a great deal of appeal, especially because they take such good care of their appearance (that twinge of narcissism), you can count on them to flirt with others. They won’t listen to reason in discussion, for example, family finances, and may easily become enraged if they’re not getting the attention they crave.
Though not all actors would qualify for having this disorder, the jobs they perform on a daily basis, not to mention the public attention true celebrities receive, may reinforce histrionic tendencies. The Disney and team study suggests that the infamous Hollywood divorces may reflect the symptoms of histrionic disorder that interfere with one or both of the partners being able to function effectively in the relationship.
Individuals with symptoms of paranoid personality disorder bring a different set of problems to a relationship. They are suspicious to an extreme, meaning that they readily become jealous for no reason at all. Very sensitive to real or imagined insults, they are quick to conclude that other people want to harm them. Their two main characteristics—suspiciousness and hostility—mean that it’s difficult for them to get close to and trust others. Even though they may make a commitment to a long-term partner, people high in paranoid personality disorder tendencies will have difficulty establishing truly close and intimate bonds. Over time, the relationship will suffer from their high levels of distrust and tendency to get into arguments.
Finally, let’s look at the people high in avoidant personality disorder symptoms. You may feel that there was a typo earlier in the statement that these individuals had a lower likelihood of divorce. Avoidant sounds like, well, avoidant. However, people with the symptoms of this disorder aren’t cold and distant in their relationships. Instead, they want to be close to others but are unable to overcome their intense feelings of shyness and inhibition. Disney and her fellow researchers wondered whether perhaps these individuals were simply less likely to marry in the first place, which could account for their lower divorce rates. However, it’s just as likely that people with these symptoms, once they marry, are less likely to want to leave the relationship. Just because people are still married and not divorced doesn’t mean that they’re happily married. These individuals may be afraid to re-enter the dating scene, defer to their partner’s wishes during an argument, and keep their negative feelings to themselves.
What should you do if you’re in, or thinking of entering, a relationship with a person you suspect as being high on these divorce-prone traits? These tips can be of help, depending on where you are in your relationship with this person.
- Don’t rush to judgment. As I mentioned earlier, these findings held across a range of ratings, not just those of the individual or even the individual’s spouse.
- Remember that correlation is not causation. The study’s authors point out that they were not following people over time in the data reported here, so it’s not clear whether marital problems led to these symptoms or vice versa. Arguably, it’s hard to imagine that divorce would lead to these symptoms, but not it's not out of the realm of possibility.
- Ask the hard questions before entering into a new relationship. Once you’ve seen what the danger signs look like, pay attention to the hints that your new partner is either overly self-centered, unusually hostile and suspicious, or incapable of seeing other people’s points of view. Minimizing the extent to which these (or other) behaviors could ever bother you can only lead to problems further down the road. By the same token, look out for signs in your partner-to-be seems overly passive, inhibited, and afraid of making you angry, these may troublesome for a different set of reasons.
- If you’re already in a relationship, try to understand where these symptoms come from. The kinds of behaviors that characterize the two most divorce-prone personalities make daily life a challenge, to say the least. Although these symptoms and even full-blown personality disorders don’t have the same quality as, for example, depression, they are still qualities that torment the people who have them. No one wants to have the symptoms of a personality disorder. These disorders are, by definition, maladaptive and can lead to many complications and disappointments in life. Your partner would much rather be free of these symptoms than to have them, and risk the quality and life of your relationship.
Personality change isn’t impossible in anyone, regardless of age, and by gaining insight into the nature of these interpersonal difficulties, you may be able to prevent further unhappiness both for your loved one, and yourself.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013.
Disney, K. L., Weinstein, Y., & Oltmanns, T. F. (2012). Personality disorder symptoms are differentially related to divorce frequency. Journal Of Family Psychology, 26(6), 959-965. doi:10.1037/a0030446