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How to Successfully Divorce Someone with a High-Conflict Personality

Curtis W. Harrison | January 26, 2019

Curtis Harrison- Goranson Bain Ausley- Family Law- Texas

 Is it possible to get through this divorce with a good outcome, considering I am divorcing someone who might be sociopathic?

Yes, although divorcing someone with a personality disorder or a high-conflict personality adds another layer of complexity that should not be ignored. 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. These days, most cases that require active court intervention involve at least one high-conflict personality. Divorcing such a person is certainly achievable, though advance planning and stamina are both essential ingredients for success.

What type of personality disorders do you most often see in divorce court?

According to at least one study, approximately 15 percent 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.

Curtis Harrison- Goranson Bain Ausley- Family Law- Texas

Our therapist said my spouse has an anti-social personality disorder. What does that mean, and how can it affect our divorce?

Those 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 one 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.

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 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 with the help of professionals that you can follow from the beginning to the end of the process.

“You should develop a strategy with the help of professionals that you can follow from the beginning to the end of the process.”

What are the best recommendations to prepare myself for divorcing someone with a personality disorder, such as a sociopath?

First, 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 avoid wasting time and money on less important things.

Next, 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 already 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.

Are all family lawyers good at dealing with high-conflict personalities?

No. 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.

Will I have to go to court?

Not necessarily, but you should steel yourself to the possibility. 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. Others, such as individuals with anti-social personality traits, cannot be motivated solely by conscience to do the “right thing”. Although divorcing an individual with a high-conflict personality adds complexity and uncertainty to an already daunting process, if you work closely with an experienced mental health professional and an experienced legal professional or team, you can successfully run the race and finish well.

About the Expert:

Curtis W. Harrison is a board-certified family law attorney and the managing partner for GoransonBain. He practices in the North Texas communities of Collin County, Dallas County, Denton County, Grayson County, and surrounding cities. As a partner working in the GoransonBain Plano office, Curtis assists his clients with the traumatic consequences of divorce, child custody, and other family law matters. Harrison has been named a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters each year since 2008. He serves on the Texas Board of Legal Specialization Family Law Advisory Commission and has served on the Collin County Bench Bar Foundation Board of Trustees and the Board of Trustees for the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas.

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