Personality Disorders and Divorce

Posted on Feb 1, 2023 by Katie Carter

It’s probably safe to say that, in divorce, most rational people end up settling. In terms of the financial outlay, it makes sense. Not just in the sense of what it costs to hire an attorney – which can be substantial – but in terms of the money involved in the marriage itself.

You probably already know this, but divorce isn’t exactly a moneymaking proposition. It’s not a personal injury case, where you’re suing an insurance company with deep pockets. You’ve only got the money you always had, less what you pay for attorneys, Guardians ad litem, therapists, experts, and other professionals, divided by two.

Not only that, but there’s a toll that divorce takes on the participants that transcends money. Its emotional toll hurts not only the previously married people, but the children and other people involved intimately with the family. The longer the fighting goes on, in general, the more severe the damage. On balance, most rational people will decide that whatever might happen in court is not worth continuing to fight. And, so, they settle.

That’s not to say that it’s easy. Negotiations can be tense. They may need mediation. They may participate in a judicial settlement conference. They may work with a therapist or a divorce coach. But, slowly, painstakingly, and, ideally, respectfully, they work towards an agreement that they can both live with. And then, they finalize their divorce.

But what about the irrational people?

Unfortunately, it only takes one irrational person to throw off an entire case. And, in a lot of the cases where there is a high degree of irrationality, there’s a personality disorder (whether diagnosed or undiagnosed) at the root of it.

I don’t say this because I’m a therapist – I’m not. I’m also not expecting you to become a therapist, and provide a convenient diagnosis to explain your partner’s behavior. Again, I’m not.

In many ways, a formal diagnosis is not necessary. In the case of a lot of personality disorders – like narcissism – a diagnosis may be all but impossible to come by anyway, since many narcissists don’t seek out therapy to help manage their behaviors.

Mental Health and Divorce

In this article, I’m not really talking about anxiety and depression. I’m talking about narcissism, bipolar personality disorder, dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, and others.

There are ten major personality disorders and, though I’m not going to bore you with a primer on mental health, they are conditions that create an unhealthy pattern of thought and behavior.

Anxiety is not a personality disorder. Depression is not a personality disorder. The ‘personality disorders’ are labeled this way because they dramatically impact the way a person functions; their behavior is categorized as significantly different from the way other people might behave under similar circumstances.

All of it falls under a general ‘mental health’ category, but personality disorders rise to a higher level of dysfunction. In terms of most mental illnesses, at least as far as a divorce or custody case is concerned, the most important thing is that the individual involved is seeking appropriate treatment, taking any prescribed medication, and/or following the plan laid out by his or her doctor.

In the case of true personality disorders, though, the impact on an underlying divorce or custody case can be severe. Not just because the level of dysfunction is high, but because people with personality disorders don’t always seek treatment, and, even if they do, have a high likelihood of not following all the way through with a prescribed treatment plan.

Personality Disorders and Divorce

Narcissists, in particular, tend to make the divorce process extraordinarily difficult. That’s probably no surprise to you, as a person who is married to someone who may or may not be suffering from a narcissistic personality disorder.

They often have a pattern of lying and distorting facts; of manipulating people around them, and even of casting you in a less than positive light. They blame and gaslight, they abuse and manipulate, they lie, coverup, and confuse.

Being married to someone with a personality disorder is a trauma of its own, too, so on top of it all, it’s doubly difficult for you to do the things you need to do to secure your divorce. Your sense of reality and normalcy is skewed; you’ve been suffering with the effects and aftereffects of trauma.

The family court system, in Virginia and elsewhere, is not particularly well equipped to handle trauma victims, especially in a divorce and/or custody context.

A traumatized victim in, say, a criminal or a personal injury case is one thing – but in a divorce, its something else entirely.

In the court, there’s the perception that the mess is one of your own making, that you’re less of a victim than victims in other contexts. Lawyers, judges, Guardians ad litem, and others who frequently work in and around the family court system don’t have the most sensitivity when it comes to trauma, nor are they particularly adept at spotting it or understanding it. We tend to look at people and think, “This is how a victim acts,” and then judge them against the impossible standard we’ve created in our minds.

According to many family law judges, there’s no room for sobbing in court, for unseemly displays of anger, for lashing out at the father of your children in front of the kids – almost no matter what the provocation. But that’s not real life. And that’s not accounting for the damage that your spouse has done to your psyche, to your self esteem, and to your children in the process.

So, what do you do, if you know you’re facing a divorce from a partner with a personality disorder, and you know they’ll make it difficult – to put it mildly?

A couple suggestions:

1. Prepare ahead of time.

It’s a bit naïve to suggest that preparing ahead of time will somehow magically mean that your partner won’t cause issues. If he has a personality disorder, he almost certainly will cause issues for you and your case.

Still, I think it’s important to remember that a person with a personality disorder will often make wild, erratic attempts to distract everyone from figuring out what’s going on. Whether that means hiring a really aggressive attorney who’ll bury you in motions or spreading rumors about you to family and friends or lying to the court to make it seem like you’re the problematic one in the marriage, you’re going to want to do all you can to anticipate that behavior and prepare your attorney for it.

To the extent possible – after all, you’ve been in this situation throughout your marriage – tell your attorney what to expect, and do the best that you can to anticipate their reactions. Do you think he’ll lie and say that you’re an alcoholic and a neglectful mother, because he has made those allegations before? Bring it up. Figure out a way to suggest that this might be his tactic before he tries it.

Communicate with him carefully. Don’t give him too much information; don’t get angry. Be mindful that whatever you put in writing – whether text messages or email – may be admitted into evidence in court. Respond calmly, rationally, and minimally. If he makes outrageous statements about you, contradict them – calmly, rationally, and with the evidence that you have. But don’t hand him extra ammunition. Do not let him get the better of you emotionally; he’ll be counting on that. If necessary, communicate only through your attorney, or have your attorney proofread your responses to your husband before you send them.

See a therapist. You’ve been through something traumatic. You may be inclined to act like a victim of trauma. I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? But the thing is that the court is not the best equipped to deal with trauma victims. They might see you acting angry or emotional and deduce that you’re the problem, when really you’re reacting reasonably to an unreasonable amount of stress. Let the therapist help you through that and, to the extent possible, leave that out of the courtroom.

2. Document, document, document.

Has he behaved irrationally before? (Come on, I mean, really – is the pope a Catholic?) Document it. Write it out, contemporaneously, and describe what happened. Record, if you can – but not if it makes you unsafe. Write down what he said, how he acted, what triggered him. Write down the dates.

You might think you’ll remember – and you may remember some – but a contemporaneously written account of his behavior is going to carry much, much more weight than you just remembering things off the top of your head.

Did he threaten to hurt the kids on January 3rd? Document it. Did he scream at you and put his fist through a door on march 18th? Write it down. Did he lock you in the bathroom and scream profanities at you – in front of the children – on April 2nd? By all means, write that down. Did he show up at your work, spread lies to your boss and co workers, or show up and act bizarrely? Make sure you know when, and all the details you can include.

Did you lie at some point? Victims of this kind of behavior often do. Maybe he hit you, kicked you, or pushed you, but you told your sister in law that you fell down the stairs. Document that, too, as well as your reason for lying. It may very well be that your sister in law will be called to be a witness, and she’ll have a different story compared to you. Prepare for this, and be ready to explain any inconsistencies. You may also want to bring an expert who can testify about how victims of abuse tend to act in these situations. (Spoiler alert: this is a textbook response on your part. You don’t need to be ashamed or beat yourself up. You need to prepare.)

3. Focus on your physical safety.

He may be dangerous. He may be especially dangerous when he’s triggered, like when he’s served with divorce paperwork, when you have to appear in court, or when he’s lost something (like parenting time) that he assumed he’d win. Don’t be afraid to seek out a protective order, if you can.

Don’t forget that a protective order is still just a piece of paper. If you feel unsafe, call the police. Stay somewhere that he wouldn’t know to look, like a hotel out of town. Stay with family or friends or your scary ex-Marine brother in law. Be alert and act proactively.

Don’t be afraid, too, to ask your attorney to follow you to your car after court, if you’re afraid he’ll be threatening there. We’ve escorted people to their cars after court or in-office appointments plenty of times. And, hey – if we’re too scared, we can get police help, too. That’s especially easy in court, but still plenty easy during normal times.

Worried he’s following you? Head to the police station.

Worried he’s tracking you, or hacking your phone or computer? There are experts who can help with that, too – clue your attorney in, and get some advice.

4. Understand the process.

The bad news is that your case will likely take longer and cost more than the average divorce case. The good news is that he can’t keep you trapped in the marriage if you want to end it. You may have to take extra steps, and it may be more difficult than normal, but he can’t keep you there forever.

It may be a long journey, too. Some divorces are resolved in a year or less; others take far longer. Get your mind right. Hire a therapist.

Start preparing and documenting. You can get out, but you’ll need to understand how your divorce might look different from others.
For more information, to request a copy of our divorce book or to register to attend our monthly divorce seminar, visit our website at or give us a call at 757-425-5200.