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Personality Disorders and Divorce

We’ve all heard people going through a divorce make comments like “my husband is a narcissist” or “my wife is crazy.” Often times, these comments are driven by frustration, lack of control over the circumstances, or the adversarial nature of divorce and litigation. Other times a party may be correct and their spouse may actually have a personality disorder. Personality disorders (PD) present a number of challenges that, if recognized, may be strategically addressed by your divorce lawyer.

Not all people with personality disorders have been diagnosed as such. A person may not be aware that their spouse has a personality disorder or for that matter, even know what a personality disorder is. A person may think that their spouse is simply unusually difficult, mean spirited, unreasonable or impossible to deal with, when in reality they have an undiagnosed personality disorder.

Personality Disorders

What is a Personality Disorder?

A personality disorder is a deeply ingrained pattern of behavior of a specified kind that deviates markedly from the norms of a generally accepted behavior, typically apparent by the theme of adolescence causing long-term difficulties in personal relationships or functioning in society.

The Mayo Clinic defines a personality disorder as a type of mental disorder in which a person has a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking, functioning and behaving. A person with a personality disorder has difficulty perceiving and relating to situations and people and this causes significant problems and limitations in relationships, social activities, work and school.

Are Certain Personality Disorders More Relevant to Divorce Litigation Than Others?

There are ten different personality disorders, two of which are particularly relevant to divorces. People with either the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or the Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) may present significant challenges in a divorce, in part due to the type of disorder and in part due to the type of divorce attorney they often retain.

What is a Borderline Personality Disorder?

The Mayo Clinic defines a borderline personality disorder as a mental health disorder that impacts the way you think and feel about yourself and others, causing problems functioning in everyday life. It includes a pattern of unstable and intense relationships, distorted self-image, extreme emotions and impulsiveness.

What is a Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

The Mayo Clinic defines a narcissistic personality disorder as a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships and lack of empathy for others. Behind the most extreme confidence, lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

What Percentage of the Population Have These Disorders?

According to the largest study ever conducted on personality disorders by the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH), 5.9 percent of the U.S. population have BPD (Grant et. al. 2008) and 6.2 per cent have NPD (Stinson et. al. 2008). Some individuals have both disorders.

Are Divorce Litigants More Likely to Have a Personality Disorder Than the Overall Population?

It is logical to conclude that individuals with one of these personality disorders divorce more often than do the remaining portion of the population. Considering the NIH statistics, the overall percentage of the population with a personality disorder together with the fact that people with a personality disorder often divorce more than once, there is a fairly significant chance that one party or the other in a divorce has a personality disorder. If you are planning to file for divorce and are in the process of selecting an Orange County divorce attorney, it may be helpful to understand how personality disorders may impact divorces and the likely conduct of people with these disorders. You may want to consider working with a lawyer who has at least a basic knowledge of personality disorders and practices law strategically.

Infographic about The Divorcing Narcissist

Narcissist Personality Disorder

If a person with the Narcissist Personality Disorder is looking for an aggressive divorce attorney, he or she most likely will find one. His or her objective is likely to retain a classically aggressive divorce attorney (bull in a china closet) to carry out a “scorched earth” agenda or portions of it.

What Type of Conduct Can You Expect If You Are Divorcing a Narcissist?

In a Psychology Today article, “13 Essential Tips If You Are Divorcing a Narcissist,” Harvard Medical School’s Craig Malkin, PhD. and Mary G. Kirkpatrick, Esq. outline the following personality traits, conduct, thinking, tactics and game playing commonly seen in divorces involving a person with the Narcissist Personal Disorder:

  • Refusal to compromise or settle
  • Almost guaranteed trial
  • Game playing – attempting to game the courts
  • Willing to lie in sworn documents even when the truth will be easily proven
  • Desire to string case out as long as possible – delays are king
  • Low self esteem
  • Paints the other side black or the dark side
  • Attempts to ruin the reputation of the other party
  • Accuses the other side of negligent parenting
  • Paints self as the victim
  • Total disregard for the other party or children
  • Feels a surge of power and control by dragging spouse through the court system
  • Willing to use children as mere pawns
  • Strong need to stay connected (better to be the enemy than being a nobody)
  • Has an agenda to run up the other side’s attorney fees
  • Attempts to wear other side down
  • In it-to win it! (At all costs)
  • Needs to be viewed as the “good guy or gal” and on the right and bright side

Are There Reasons Why a Narcissist Won’t Settle a Case?

Interestingly, Dr. Malkin and Mary Kirkland explained that often times, one of the reasons narcissists don’t settle their divorce is because they have a great fear of making an error. The thinking of the narcissist may be that if the judge makes the decision, he or she will have avoided personally making a mistake which, by itself, is a significant win.

What Traits Do Narcissists Often Share?

Well known author, Bill Eddy, LCSW, JD, who has written extensively about the Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the Borderline Personality Disorder in the context of divorce, wrote in his book, Splitting:

“Narcissistic Personality Disorder

People with this specific Personality Disorder have some or all of these characteristics:

  • Are self-absorbed and indifferent to the needs of others
  • Believe they are superior to others
  • Lack empathy for others (although they may mouth the customer words)
  • Are highly sensitive to criticism or perceived insults
  • Fear being seen as inferior or helpless
  • Have a sense of entitlement, or the feeling that they’re owed special treatment for no apparent reason
  • Are demanding of attention and admiration
  • Are demeaning and insulting to people closet to them, sometimes in public
  • Regularly complain about being a victim and being take advantage of

They usually deny responsibility for any of the preceding behavior.”

Borderline Personality Disorder

What Traits Do Borderlines Often Share?

In the same book, Mr. Eddy wrote:

“Borderline Personality Disorder:

People with BPD typically feel unworthy and empty, lack a sense of self, and constantly fear real or imagined abandonment. They have some or all of these characteristics:

  • Sudden and intense anger
  • Wide, rapid mood springs
  • Impulsive behavior, often regretted but sometimes defended as justified
  • Substance abuse, eating disorders, or other potentially self-harming behavior
  • Potentially violent actions, with a buildup of tension, an explosion of rage, and then remorse
  • Impaired, black-and-white thinking, called “splitting.” People with BPD put their partners on pedestals at the beginning of the relationship and then push them off when their partners are unable to meet all their demands. Splitting is a major contributor to high-conflict divorce.
  • Great fear of abandonment, which nearly always comes into play during a divorce-even if they initiate the divorce. Ironically, the combination of intense clinging and intense anger tends to push people away.

People with BPD may also:

  • Purposely or unconsciously selectively use sensitive information (such as finances, pregnancy, illness, or serious problems) to sway others to their viewpoints
  • Seek revenge—for example, by destroying important personal possessions or spreading rumors
  • Seek vindication—for example, by demanding loyalty and endless reassurance, and filling lawsuits

They usually deny responsibility for any of the previously noted behaviors.”


How Do You Deal With a Spouse Who Has a Personality Disorder in a Divorce?

Depending on the type of personality disorder and the specific conduct being acted out, a divorce lawyer’s strategy and tactics may be substantially different.

Rather than spend considerable time and money attempting to settle a divorce, it may make sense to make a reasonable settlement offer early in the case, then immediately start preparing for trial and request a trial date. It is likely that divorcing a person with a personality disorder will require a judge to rule.

A divorce lawyer may not recognize a personality disorder in the opposing party in that he or she is not a trained mental health professional. You should discuss this issue with your Orange County divorce lawyer if you think a disorder may exist. Raising these issues with one’s lawyer may be very relevant to the strategy employed and the results of the case.

It is anecdotal but many veteran divorce lawyers know that if the marriage has been high conflict, volatile and filled with drama—the divorce will likely be more the same. Generally, a spouse’s conduct does not change for the better in a divorce. Why would it? If anything, it worsens.


It is easy to see how a person with either of these personality disorders would be guided by these characteristics to a specific type of divorce lawyer. The combination of a person with one of these disorders and an unreasonably aggressive divorce attorney is a recipe for a long, protracted, painful and expensive divorce. On the other hand, if a person with a personality disorder retains a strong and competent lawyer who is client centered, that he or she respects, there is at least a chance that the case will be settled before either the lawyer fires the client or the client fires the lawyer. Alternatively, if a person with a personality disorder retains a weak divorce lawyer, the client will control the case and the odds of a  settlement decrease significantly.