Between You & Me…

Mental Health, Divorce and the Courts

August 11, 2021

Why is it you can get married in a matter of minutes yet to divorce it takes months to years? I know you probably think it’s due to the behavior of the participants — the fighting, the threatening, the need to come out on top, but I believe that’s just half of the story and there’s something more sinister afoot.

The Divorce Courts are inundated with cases pending and as much as the lawyers representing the courts try to settle them, it doesn’t always happen. Is it that they’re not being persuasive enough? Not pointing out the benefits to settling? The detriments to not settling? I don’t believe this is the case.

What’s Going On?

Slowly, as mental health issues become less taboo to talk about, something has become evidently clear to me. Not only are mood disorders like anxiety, depression and bi-polar disorder potential problems for divorce, but the more egregious personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) are far more disruptive and costly– both emotionally and financially.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder is one of the most likely personality disorders (PD’s) you’ll find in a divorce court. Statistics note that 5% of the adult population are narcissists. That means one in every two hundred people. Men make up the majority but that may be because of gender and cultural stereotypes as our society has always approved of and often rewarded men for their aggressive tendencies, not so for their female counterparts.

Borderline Personality Disorder is found in 1.6% of the entire population, including teens and young adults. 75% of this total is women. Men are a small minority but are often misdiagnosed with PTSD or depression according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

Antisocial Personality Disorder affects roughly 2-4% of the adult population. And again, the majority of those diagnosed are men. The diagnosis includes both “psychopaths” and “sociopaths,” the latter having the ability to form attachments yet they can be far more impulsive and easily agitated than a psychopath.

Individuals diagnosed with a personality disorder (PD) are toxic. They’re proficient at manipulating and controlling others. Their cruel words and heartless actions feel like shock waves that put you on edge sewing doubt and confusion. They lie constantly, often cheat on their partners for a fresh source of “narcissistic energy,” (praise, adoration, etc.) and consistently gaslight so you don’t recognize fact from fiction. Ultimately you find yourself in a tailspin of anxiety and fear. This is the currency used in every negotiation with a PD as for them it’s all about winning. Scorched-earth litigation is the usual modus operandi.

A Scorched-Earth Tactic

What’s “scorched-earth litigation?” Originally the term ‘scorched-earth’ was used to define a military strategy that focused on destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy. When used in the realm of divorce, the term refers to wasting the opposing side’s time, money and resources that generally have no thought or point behind them. The actual motive is to throw anything and everything at the proverbial wall and hope something sticks. Things like false arrests based on untrue accusations, claims of abusive threats hurled at them and/or the children, calling you an unfit parent and abusing drugs or alcohol, threatening them with a knife, the list is as long as their imagination runs free. Absolutely none of it’s true. If it doesn’t stick, that’s okay, they’ve wreaked enough chaos and mayhem to make themselves feel good for the moment.

While some attorneys may use this tactic, in the case of personality disorders the behavior almost always emanates from the client. Granted the attorney must file the papers and pursue the actions requested by the client, yet for those with NPD, BPD and ASPD this is the only playbook they know.

Masters of The Great First Impression

So you may wonder why an upstanding, honorable attorney doesn’t fire this client or simply say “No, I won’t do something unethical.” The real problem here is these personality types are masters at feigning innocence and sincerity, projecting onto their spouse so it appears the spouse is the problem, lying with great conviction so ultimately they’re the ones believed, and corralling others to be on their side. They’re masters of ‘the great first impression.’ Sadly, judges, lawyers, law guardians, Child Protective Services (CPS), mediators, and others aren’t trained to recognize these specific traits and behaviors as red flags so they’re not attuned to the overall deceit and manipulation.

A Case In Point

Out of the blue ‘Lisa’s’ lawyer receives a notice from the court that a Temporary Order of Protection has been issued for Lisa. The complaint states that Lisa has been behaving in an outrageous manner including but not limited to interrupting phone calls between her husband and his clients, yelling and screaming she needs money. As is typical, there’s a kernel of truth here. Lisa did indeed interrupt a phone call asking her husband for money. He removed all the cash from their joint checking account and then deposited it into one Lisa had no access to, thus making her completely dependent upon him.

Yet what really happened was ‘Lisa’ politely said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to interrupt but…” not knowing this was a client but instead thinking it was office staff whom she knew. She was still in the dark until the order of protection was served.

Not Confined by The Truth

The obscene distortions of an incident, often following many years of gaslighting, can cause anyone in ‘Lisa’s’ position to feel disoriented, enraged, on-edge and even paranoid. After years of such treatment you’re not exactly at the pinnacle of self-confidence. In fact you’re often highly impulsive, emotionally dysregulated with a baseline remaining in ‘fight or flight mode.’ Perhaps you feel the opposite, very depressed and removed. Either way, you’re a shell of your former self.

This matters. And is all part of the plan. You come across as unhinged and incapable and they, the master of calm and charm. When you’re dealing with someone who isn’t confined by the truth, all bets are off.

The ability to tell lies with ease, project an image of reasonableness and stability and an assertive manner (one that at any moment may topple over into aggression if they don’t get their way) almost always gives the PD the advantage. They’re instantly perceived as the “right one,” the “sane one.” You on the other hand, the one who’s come unglued.

Like A “Thriller”

Imagine this scenario:

You’ve finished divorcing, the agreement is signed and child visitation is in place. You share joint custody of your 9 and 6 year olds, splitting the time equally between the two parents’ homes. You get a call from your 9 year old who says, “Daddy just punched me in the stomach.” Of course you believe your child and rush over to your ex’s home right after calling the police. The police somehow manage to arrive before you, and by this time have already spoken to your Ex. They tell you it’s all a big misunderstanding, your daughter admitted she made it up because she was mad at her father for not letting her play on the computer. You’re not sure what or who to believe but your gut says, “He did it, maybe not exactly punched her, but he definitely pushed her.”

Here’s the tricky part. Do you put your daughter smack in the middle of the ‘battle’’ between you and her father by reporting the incident to CPS? Will it likely cause your child to be afraid, saddling her with unacceptable guilt for having to “tell on” her father? That’s a likely possibility. What made this particular case even more egregious is that minutes later her Ex quietly whispered out of earshot of the police: “Now Maggie,” he sneered, “You remember what happened the last time you called the police and CPS don’t you? No one believed you. Do you want to risk that again?” This sounds like something out of a thriller written by James Patterson and yet it happens all the time.

The Issue

Knowing full well your spouse will be uncooperative and more likely maniacal in their pursuit of victory, you must be smart, disengaged emotionally and look at your divorce as a business deal. In addition, the team you assemble is of the utmost importance. Herein lies the problem.

Even in big cities like New York City finding those who really understand this type of case — the near daunting challenge, the need to guard against manipulation of an already overburdened court system, an assertive manner that never takes the bait, boundaries that never waiver, excellent communication skills based upon fact not interpretation, and a complete understanding of the psychological underpinnings of this personality type — is an incredibly tall order. Your lawyer must exude strength, a no-nonsense attitude and be very much at home in their own skin. They must also be compassionate and understand the abuse you’ve endured for years, your fragile ego and oftentimes your inability to make a decision. There’s also a good chance you’re suffering from PTSD. Always remember a PD can smell weakness. Like a bat squeezing through a hair-thin crack in the chimney of your home, a narcissist squeezes through the same hair-thin crack in your psyche.

What happens otherwise is nothing short of tragic, a miscarriage of justice to the nth degree. The case will almost certainly go off the rails as this person tries to eviscerate you. They file motion upon motion, order upon order, complaint upon complaint that will financially ruin you, emotionally devastate you and tie you up in court for years. Not to mention the very real and long-term effects it will have on your children. That’s another discussion altogether.

The Need For Education

In my mind there’s only one answer. Education. Anyone who finds themselves advocating for a client in the divorce realm must be knowledgeable about both the basics of Mood Disorders like anxiety and depression, and the specifics of Personality Disorders and how they present. Otherwise their lack of knowledge and skill when up against this personality type will only hurt you. I’ve had many clients who fight an uphill battle to be believed, trusted and given the benefit of the doubt, sometimes even by their own lawyers! Imagine that. And often a result of these antics is parental alienation in which one parent is cut out of the child’s life altogether for no other purpose than to hurt that parent. Which it does in spades. And still, the child is hurt far more. No, the narcissist really doesn’t care.

The divorce ‘world’ is ever-growing with more and more people out there to help, be they divorce coaches and others who specialize in making the process easier and more stream-lined. To that end I hope to write and produce a course educating anyone servicing clients in the divorce arena, the lawyers, judges and others who hold your fate in their hands most of all. It’s long overdue. Stay tuned.

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