Divorcing a Sociopath
“I think I’m losing my mind.” Amy  , who as a very bright, sensitive wife and mother of two, sat in my office for a divorce consultation. “When Jim and I met 15 years ago, he swept me off my feet. He was the smartest, most charming, and most caring man I had ever met. Either I’m going crazy, or he’s not the same man I married.”
Amy continued without missing a beat, “Over the years, I’ve caught him in lie after lie, but he never apologized. Somehow, it always got twisted around and became my fault. The strangest part was, I didn’t even realize he was gaslighting me until I discovered he was having an affair. When I confronted him, we got into a big fight that ended with him actually blaming me for not being adequate to meet his needs!”
“I want to leave him but I’m exhausted and afraid. Jim always has to win. He never gives up – he just wears me down until I give in. He’s heavily involved in the children’s activities and he controls virtually all of our money. If I try to leave, he will either use the kids to get to me, or he will burn down the estate so I’m left with nothing. What do I do?”
Does your spouse have a high-conflict personality?
Amy isn’t crazy, but she might be married to a person with a high-conflict personality. Her story touches on increasingly common elements in many divorce cases. More and more individuals confronting the prospect of divorce are also forced to deal with a high-conflict personality on the other side of the case. Today, the majority of cases that require actual court intervention involve at least one high-conflict personality .
This should not be surprising since, according to at least one study, approximately 15% of the U.S. population has one or more serious personality disorders. And while not every high-conflict person has a personality disorder, some do. The most prevalent personality disorders that appear in family courts today involve histrionic, narcissistic, borderline and/or antisocial personality disorders . These are types of disorders that, when coupled with a high-conflict personality, can lead to prolonged — sometimes dangerous — family conflict.
Let’s consider some startling facts about the “antisocial personality disorder,” since it could be pertinent to Amy’s situation.
Personality traits of a sociopath
Individuals with antisocial personality disorder (ASP), also referred to as “sociopathic” or “psychopathic”, have a weakened conscience, or worse, they have no conscience at all. Such individuals can be dishonest, deceitful, and potentially even hostile or violent without feeling remorse or regret . They can be experts at lies, manipulation, and distortion. According to another study, about 1 in 25 adults would meet the clinical definition for an ASP. So, there is a good chance you know one or two.
For spouses married to such individuals, the marriage can feel very much like an exhausting, endless roller-coaster ride that cycles between extreme highs, crushing lows, and terrifying falls in between. Chaos typically reigns in the relationship.
Divorcing a person with a High-Conflict Personality
For spouses like Amy, who are confronting a possible divorce from such individuals, the normal divorce-related stressors are compounded by the fear of the anticipated reaction of the high-conflict spouse. Divorcing a person who lacks empathy; who artfully uses deceit, manipulation, pressure, and guilt as “tools of the trade”; and who is not limited by conscience, can truly be a daunting, even paralyzing, prospect.
If you, like Amy, are considering divorcing a person with a high-conflict personality, you should prepare yourself in advance, much like a runner trains for an upcoming cross-country race. Preparation, focus, and determination can make a tremendous difference for you. In addition, you should develop a strategy, or roadmap, that you can follow from the beginning to the end of the process. Here are four core elements to help you begin developing your strategy:
Charting your path forward
1. Identify your goals. Determine what is most important to you and write these down as your primary goals. Refer to your goals frequently over the course of the divorce. Doing this will help you keep the “first things first” and to avoid wasting time and money on less important things.
2. Don’t go it alone. To negotiate successfully, a comparative balance of power must exist between the spouses. But if your spouse has antisocial personality traits or an actual ASP, a significant power imbalance likely exists. Your spouse will not be reluctant to bring to bear all his or her powers of manipulation, deceit, and pressure to “win” the negotiations.
To level the playing field, you should engage either a therapeutic psychologist or licensed professional counselor who is experienced in helping individuals cope with high-conflict personalities. Additionally, you should consult with a family law attorney who is experienced and skilled in handling high-conflict cases as early as you can during the planning stages.
3. Be discriminating in hiring your divorce attorney. Many family law attorneys, and even some mental health professionals, cause an unnecessary escalation of the divorce conflict through ignorance or inexperience in dealing with high-conflict personalities. Interview more than one prospective attorney and ask questions about his or her experience in dealing with high-conflict personalities. Additionally, don’t be too quick to hire the attorney who promises you the most. Rather, hire the one who has proven experience working with high-conflict personalities and a reputation for integrity, being responsive, and giving sound advice.
4. Be willing to go to court. Sometimes limits must be imposed externally. Some individuals, including high-conflict individuals, must be exposed to the rule-making and enforcement powers of the court, especially early in the case. Steel yourself to the prospect that you might need to go to court to level the negotiating playfield later in your case.
You can Succeed
Divorcing an individual with a high-conflict personality adds complexity and uncertainty to an already daunting process. But, with an experienced mental health professional and an experienced legal professional or team, you can successfully run the race and finish well.
Curtis W. Harrison is a board-certified family law attorney and partner with GoransonBain Ausley, who practices in the North Texas communities of Collin County, Dallas County, Denton County, Grayson County, and surrounding cities.
The foregoing is provided for informational purposes only.
 Amy is a fictionalized composite drawn from 24 years of family law practice
 Maultsby, Beth, and Kathryn Samler, High Conflict Family Law Matters and Personalities Disorders, 2013, at 5
 Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door, at 6 (Penguin Random House Company, New York 2005)
This post was written by Curtis Harrison.
“I firmly believe that, equipped with the right team of collaborative professionals to guide you, you and your spouse will be able to negotiate an agreement that is more creative, more beneficial, and more satisfying than anything a perfect stranger in a black robe could devise.” – Curtis Harrison