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Managing personality disorders in family law disputes

After recently completing a Graduate Diploma of Psychology (Advanced) at Deakin University, a topic that resonated with Daniel Myers, Special Counsel, was personality disorders. Daniel has developed a keen interest in trying to understand the emotional and psychological factors that influence the family law process and outcomes, which is also what led Daniel to qualify as a mediator several years ago.

Relationship breakdowns and divorces generally feature in the “top three” of stressful life events, alongside the death of a loved one and a major illness, particularly in high-conflict cases.

Family law is a complex area, but nuance and sensitivity are often lost in the red-mist of an argument.  Working in family law has taught me to place emphasis on a client’s experience of going through a separation, particularly if the breakdown was unexpected or high-conflict.

Although the prevalence of personality disorders is fewer than about 5% of the general Australian community, it is significantly higher within family law disputes. Even for healthy individuals, the high-stakes nature of a separation can increase existing conflict or distrust between partners and they can fall into an adversarial process which is inherently stressful. However, people with personality disorders often have poor resilience or coping mechanisms and are impacted particularly hard, leading to negative patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder), personality disorders are grouped into 3 main “clusters”:

  • Symptoms of Cluster A are generally described as having “odd” or “eccentric” thoughts or behaviours.
  • Cluster C includes those with anxious and fearful thoughts and behaviour.
  • The most common personality disorder in high-conflict disputes are those under Cluster B (Antisocial; Histrionic; Borderline; and Narcissistic) which includes unstable emotions and dramatic or impulsive behaviours.

My study of personality disorders has enhanced my skills as a family lawyer when a personality disorder is present. For example, those with Borderline personalities are very insecure, suffer feelings of inadequacy and are vulnerable to feeling abandoned. Providing advance notice of all relevant steps is important to ensure they are not taken by surprise.

Those with Narcissistic personality disorders have an exaggerated belief of their own self-importance, but can be manipulative, sensitive to criticism and cope very poorly with losing (whether real or perceived). In the context of litigation, setting realistic expectations and strong boundaries from the outset is therefore very important.

Those with Histrionic personality disorders are very emotional and attention-seeking and have a tendency to elaborate and exaggerate.

If a personality disorder is present, it may be even more important to consider alternative dispute resolution (e.g., mediation) rather than going to Court.  The competitive nature of litigation can aggravate a diagnosed person’s sense of distrust and suspicion which can prolong the dispute, causing greater legal expense for both parties and risks deteriorating their own psychological health.

If you are experiencing the effects of a partner with a personality disorder, please reach out for a confidential consultation.

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