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Misunderstanding Personalities in Family Court

Part 1: Parents and professionals need a better understanding of disorders.

Key points

  • Divorce is hard enough, but divorcing someone with a "high conflict" personality disorder or traits can be especially difficult, unless decision-makers understand.
  • A common mistake people make is trying to change someone with a high conflict personality disorder by arguing with them.
  • Trying to give insight to someone with a personality disorder generally doesn't work and may put a strain on your relationship.
  • It helps to understand that someone with a personality disorder truly believes other people have caused their problems and often blame others inappropriately.

This 4-part article addresses common misunderstandings about personality disorders which often drive “high conflict” family court separation, divorce, and custody cases. This Part 1 focuses on misunderstanding the significance of personality disorders in these cases in terms of an enduring pattern of behavior, lack of self-awareness, and preoccupation with blaming others. Part 2 focuses on 3 theories of the high conflict case and determining whose behavior is inappropriate. Part 3 focuses on presenting a case to professionals when a personality disorder is involved. Part 4 focuses on how to help someone with a personality disorder and their children and family. This is all written with the understanding that no one chooses to have a personality disorder.

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High Conflict Behavior

For years, “high conflict” behavior has dominated family courts. Because decisions such as child custody and parenting plans are always modifiable (to protect the children’s best interests), parents can always come back to court requesting a change in the parenting arrangements. Over the years, an increasing amount of court time has been spent on high conflict cases that keep returning to court, have an intense level of anger and possibly violence, involve many family members and professionals, and cost a lot (to the parents and to the public who pays for the courts).

The behaviors most commonly seen include a drive to dominate the other party (including domestic violence and/or gaining total control of the children), vindictiveness to get back at the other party (for divorcing them, publicly exposing their abusive behavior, etc.), and constantly intrusive (a lack of emotional boundaries with their children, including them in all their conflicts, quizzing them, and bad-mouthing the other parent in front of them). High conflict custody disputes often go on for years with thick court files, hostility, and an unpredictable life for the children, as parents and family law professionals (lawyers, judges, mediators, and therapists) argue over which parent is causing all the trouble.

Typically, family law professionals get angry at their clients in high conflict cases, blaming one or both parents for behaving badly and keeping the case going. They try to get parents to stop fighting and just get along. They assume that both parents have control over their own behavior, that their behavior is intentional (for financial or some other advantage), and knowingly bad. They assume that they are in conflict because of the divorce and believe they can talk them out of their upset emotions (“just get over it”). Lawyers and therapists usually believe that their clients’ behavior is simply a reaction to the other parent’s bad behavior. They do not realize the nature of personality disorders.

Enduring Pattern of Behavior

The diagnostic manual of mental disorders, the DSM-5, indicates that approximately 15% of United States adults meet the criteria for a personality disorder. It defines a personality disorder as an “enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the individual’s culture…. [Which can include] interpersonal functioning.” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, 646) Personality disorders are fundamentally interpersonal disorders and especially impact family members, as recent research shows:

[A] growing body of empirical research has also considered associations between personality disorders and the quality of functioning in specific interpersonal relationships, such as with one’s children, parents and siblings, peers, and romantic partners. (Wilson, et al, 2017, 2)

Specific interpersonal behaviors that are associated with personality disorders are the same as we see in family court cases, as this research directly indicates:

Antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders, historically classified as Cluster B (dramatic-emotional-erratic) personality disorders, all showed moderate-to-large and significant associations with domineeringness, vindictiveness, and intrusiveness. (Wilson, et al, 2017, 20) (Emphasis added)

Furthermore, the effect of these personality disorders on their children can be quite powerful, even if a parent just has traits of a personality disorder (considered a subclinical level) and not a full personality disorder.

For the first time, it is documented that parents’ self-reported symptoms of Borderline, Antisocial, and Narcissistic Personality Disorders at a predominantly subclinical level had a strong effect on their children’s psychiatric symptoms, especially when the biological parents were not living together. Child service providers need to be aware of these specific symptoms of parental Personality Disorders, which may represent a possible risk to children. (Berg-Nielsen and Wichstrom, 2012, 2)

According to this study, the parental behaviors which impact the children most greatly are hostility and unpredictability, which are commonly associated with some of those with these Cluster B personality disorders.

These disorders are characterized by features such as difficulty controlling anger (BPD, ASPD, NPD), impulsive and aggressive outbursts (BPD, ASPD), rage when being criticized (NPD), irritability (BPD), aggressiveness and physical assault (ASPD), being tough-minded, exploitive, and non-empathic (ASPD, NPD), lack of reciprocal interest and sensitivity to the wants and needs of others (ASPD, NPD)….

(Berg-Nielsen and Wichstrom, 2012, 2)

In short, the interpersonal behavior of people with personality disorders is enduring, and for many of them (especially Cluster B) the pattern of their interpersonal behavior is domineering, vindictive, intrusive, and enduring.

Lack of Self-Awareness

One of the hardest things for family members and professionals to realize is that people with personality disorders really are not aware of the impact of their interpersonal behavior on others. This has been known for years by those who have studied personality disorders:

Personality-disordered patients will often see the difficulties that they encounter in dealing with other people or tasks as external to them, and generally independent of their behavior or input. They often describe being victimized by others or, more globally, by ‘the system.’ Such patients often have little idea about how they … contribute to their own problems….” (Emphasis added)

Beck, et al, Cognitive Therapy of Personality Disorders. 1990. p. 5-6.

They truly and honestly do not see their part in their own family conflicts. They do not connect the dots and cannot connect the dots (unless they work hard at it in treatment). Giving them feedback will not give them the insight that you had hoped it would, but it will also make your relationship with them more strained. All they will hear is that you are criticizing them and assume you do not like them.

In short, people with personality disorders do not reflect on their part in their problems and conflicts. Therefore, admonishments, arguments, threats, and pleading will not change the behavior of someone with a personality disorder.

Preoccupation with Blaming Others

Since they cannot reflect on their part in their own problems and conflicts, they are in pain and want to feel better. While many people with personality disorders do not blame anyone in particular (such as blaming “the system” described above), the high conflict personality disorders focus on a specific person or group and blame them for their problems—their targets of blame. This leads them into intense conflicts as many take their blaming to court, because they truly believe it is all the other person’s fault and that the judge will agree.

Yet their family members and legal professionals may truly believe that they are victims of the other person because they are so emotionally persuasive. Family court testimony is focused on determining which person is most “credible” and who is lying. Yet someone with a personality disorder may be the most persuasive person because they believe the false statements that they are emotionally making. Likewise, a reasonable person may hesitate to argue back and expose truly abusive behavior because they know how extreme the high conflict person can be in their vindictiveness.


The result of misunderstanding the significance of personality disorders in today’s family courts is that the arguments over responsibility for bad behavior can go on for years, efforts to change behavior through insight usually fail, and children may be exposed to abuse, alienation, and endless conflict between their parents as they blame each other. Truly abusive behavior may continue unstopped.

However, there is hope. Understanding personality disorders points us in a different direction for helping children and their parents. Professionals can more accurately understand the dynamics of a family and parents can understand how to present the reality of their cases to decision makers. Then, more productive planning can occur, understanding what behavior can be changed, and what behavior will not change.

Part 2 will focus on 3 Theories of the High Conflict Case: Determining Who is Acting Badly


American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Arlington, VA, American Psychiatric Association, 2013. ("DSM-5")

Beck, A. and Freeman, A. Cognitive Therapy of personality disorders. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 1990.

Berg-Nielsen, T.S. and Wichstrom, L. “The mental health of preschoolers in a Norwegian population-based study when their parents have symptoms of borderline, antisocial, and narcissistic personality disorders: at the mercy of unpredictability.” Child & Adolescent Psychiatry & Mental Health. 2012; 6:19.

Wilson S., Stroud, C. and Durbin, C. "Interpersonal Dysfunction in Personality Disorders: A Meta-Analytic Review," Psychology Bulletin, July 2017; 143(7): 677-734. doi: 10.1037/bul0000101.

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