Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Presenting Personality Patterns in Family Court

Part 3: Explain high-conflict behavior with simple, repetitive, factual themes.

Key points

  • People with personality disorders often communicate falsely but successfully in family court because they are simple, repetitive, and emotional.
  • To overcome misleading or false testimony in family court, an honest parent must communicate in simple, repetitive, emotional, and factual terms.
  • It helps for an honest parent to present three to four simple patterns of concerning behavior with strong examples and repeat them.

As explained in Part 1 and Part 2 of these Family Court articles, high-conflict people in separation and divorce cases tend to have a pattern of blaming others (their targets of blame), all-or-nothing thinking and solutions, unmanaged emotions, and extreme behavior. This can range from emotional and verbal abuse to child abuse, child alienation, domestic violence, and beyond. Such people tend to have Cluster B personality disorders or traits, which research shows often impacts family members (especially young children) with domineeringness, vindictiveness, and intrusiveness. The unpredictability and hostility of these high-conflict personalities can impact children from a very early age.

Matt Benoit/Shutterstock
Source: Matt Benoit/Shutterstock

While such behavior can often be explained by understanding personality disorders, most parents in family court have never had an official diagnosis by a mental health professional, and most family law professionals (lawyers, judges, mediators, evaluators, court counselors, etc.) do not like to hear one parent “diagnosing” the other parent. This puts parents and their advocates in a difficult position: The key to understanding the case and the need for setting limits on high-conflict behavior is not allowed to be talked about. However, there is a way that has accomplished this task without talking about personality disorders.

Emotional persuasion

High-conflict people tend to communicate simply, repetitively, and intensely emotionally, which can make them very persuasive. It is not uncommon for them to make misleading or false allegations against a reasonable co-parent regarding abuse, alienation, manipulation, or violence. These allegations grab the attention of decision-makers because they are so emotional. Yet in some cases, they are not at all true but can sound persuasive. On the other hand, there are many true cases of abuse, alienation, manipulation, and violence by high-conflict co-parents, but they are falsely and emotionally denied by the perpetrators, who often get away with this harmful behavior.

In order to address the power of emotional but false or misleading information, a reasonable parent must communicate in simple terms about the high-conflict person’s behavior, in a repetitive fashion, so that the information gets through to decision-makers. Their information must be factual, yet it must also have some emotional power to it: simple, repetitive, emotional, and factual. Focusing on three to four key patterns of concerning behavior seems to be the most powerful way to get the truth across.

Presenting three to four key patterns of behavior

High-conflict people have a narrow range of behavior, which often includes clearly abusive behavior, efforts to undermine the other parent’s relationship with a child, misleading or false information provided to professionals, inability to manage their own emotions, frequent threats, overly-controlling behavior with the child, isolating the child from friends and activities, bad-mouthing the other parent, lack of emotional boundaries with the child, and so forth. When someone has a personality disorder, it means they have an “enduring pattern” of dysfunctional behavior, such as the examples in the previous sentence. Therefore, there usually are numerous incidents that fit within these patterns of behavior.

Parents and their advocates (generally lawyers, possibly others helping them) are encouraged to identify the three or four most concerning patterns and to focus on them in organizing the information they are going to present to decision-makers (generally evaluators and judges). In paperwork and presentations, they can organize their information under these patterns as themes or headings. For example:

1. Abusive behavior with the child

2. Undermining [father’s or mother’s] relationship with the child

3. Disregard of health care providers’ advice

4. Misleading and false statements about [father or mother]

In a written declaration or affidavit, each of these headings can be put in bold, all caps, and underlined to help organize the information beneath them for the decision-makers to absorb more easily. Note that each of these four examples are simple and have an emotional element to them (abusive, undermining, disregard, misleading), yet they are not extreme and must be supported by factual examples below them.

Thus, parents or their advocates can put the three to four most concerning factual examples of these behavior patterns under each heading. (On this date, such-and-such occurred, etc.) These examples should start with the most concerning first, then the second most concerning, then the third, regardless of when these events occurred chronologically (unless they are too old to be relevant to the decisions being made now). These examples should be no more than a paragraph, so that it becomes clear to decision-makers very quickly how extreme or not extreme this case really is. More detailed information can be provided in a separate document or later in a single document.

Of course, these factual examples need to be true and accurately supportive of the themes or headings that are used for each pattern. If the themes are an exaggeration of the real factual examples (e.g., not really abusive behavior by most people’s standards), then the parent will lose credibility with the decision-makers and may be seen as overly dramatic or lying.

Meeting with an evaluator, a parent can say, “Here are my biggest concerns about the other parent. He/she has…” and then list the three to four patterns of behavior or themes. Give the most concerning examples. Then one can repeat those themes throughout an evaluation. In court, a lawyer or parent representing herself/himself can present the patterns first, then the information that fits under each theme. Then, at the end of a hearing or trial, the same patterns can be repeated to keep it simple and memorable.


By organizing one’s information this way, it has a better chance of getting through to a decision-maker who has been influenced or persuaded by a high-conflict co-parent. This approach keeps it simple, repetitive, emotional, and factual. This approach also makes it unnecessary to talk about a personality disorder because the patterns of behavior can be clearly understood by anyone, and extreme behavior is viewed as extreme by most people. For more on this approach, see the second edition of my book Splitting: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Part 4 of this four-part series will focus on one way to help someone with a personality disorder and their children and family in a family court case.

More from Bill Eddy LCSW, JD
More from Psychology Today