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Personality Disorders in Child Custody Cases

A sad little girl with parents upset at each other in background

Often a personality disorder, particularly when left untreated, leads to and results in a separation of the couple/family unit and ultimately, a divorce. When a personality disorder is present, often this is the central reason that leads to the couple separating. Often a spouse struggling with a personality disorder will engage in odd, harmful, mean and self-serving behaviors. Often for a spouse watching and dealing with this behavior, it becomes too much, particularly if the parties have children and the spouse with a personality disorder is struggling to interact with and/or appropriately parent the child or children involved. Many people with personality disorders struggle with being mean-spirited, appearing uncaring, being paranoid, delusional, excessively angry or being too quick to anger, among other difficult personality traits to deal with and live with, on a daily basis.

Children of parents who suffer from personality disorders often have a variety of struggles that can leave imprints for the rest of their lives. Children struggle to understand why their mother or father has changing behavior and moods, and can be warm and loving on some occasions, while also acting cold and distant to them on other occasions. Generally, if a personality disorder is diagnosed, or can be diagnosed through a mental health evaluation, courts have a preference to award primary custody and often, decision-making rights and responsibilities, to the parent not afflicted by a personality disorder. The non-afflicted parent is often more stable and capable, particularly of meeting the emotional needs of the children. If you are struggling with a personality disorder or your spouse is struggling, it is a good idea to get a knowledgeable and experienced family law attorney in place so that he or she can help guide you through the process of determining a parenting plan in the best interests of the children involved.

What is a personality disorder?

Mental health professionals and court personnel (such as attorneys, judges and guardian ad litems) primarily rely on the DSM-V to classify and determine the presence of a personality disorder as one of the following:

  • Paranoid personality disorder—characterized by extreme distrust and being excessively suspicious of others around them;
  • Schizoid personality disorder—exhibiting minimal or no emotion and almost completely withdrawing from social situations and even interacting with loved ones;
  • Schizotypal personality disorder— withdrawing from others while simultaneously becoming detached from reality, in some people, to the point of having delusions and reportedly seeing things that no one else sees (hallucinations);
  • Histrionic personality disorder—excessive attention seeking behavior by acting out in overly emotional ways, flirting or seeking romantic attention excessively, and dressing excessively and overly sexual;
  • Dependent personality disorder—focusing on the person’s neediness to the point of requiring others to take care of the person;
  • Explosive personality disorder—often characterized by regular, vicious/violent attacks, in many cases they are physical, but in some cases they are verbal;
  • Borderline personality disorder—having intense and extreme mood swings and being unable to control impulses and particularly, reactive behavior;
  • Obsessive-Compulsive personality disorder—focusing excessively and repetitively on (relatively) pointless and unneeded behaviors such as checking to make sure that locks are locked twenty times before leaving the house and fearing something bad will happen if the pattern is not repeated, such as checking the locks twenty times;
  • Avoidant personality disorder—being unable to handle a negative reaction or feedback from others, but also excessively criticizing oneself in a very or overly harsh manner;
  • Antisocial personality disorder—being unable to show care or concern for the rights, feelings or needs of others, as well as regularly lashing out in anger, along with lying and manipulative behaviors;
  • Narcissistic personality disorder—feeling overly entitled and superior to all others around him or her, as though this person’s needs and wants should come before, and be prioritized above anything else.

Frequently, our office has the privilege of meeting with spouses who believe or have actually had their spouse diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder. This often becomes impossible for a spouse to live with as the afflicted spouse is unable to show or express empathy for the other spouse, or the children, is excessively self-centered, finds fault and criticism with everyone around him or her, believes themselves to be a victim, spends time excessively fantasizing about or overstating their qualifications or successes and generally being hard to get along with and immature. Often this type of person is a difficult, if not impossible co-parent and does not perceive the needs of the children involved.

How do we present evidence of a personality disorder in court?

If you believe or suspect that your spouse has an undiagnosed personality disorder, almost certainly, if children are involved, a mental health evaluation will be helpful. The court can order this with a trusted mental health provider of psychologist to allow the court to have the professional expert input that is often needed in this situation. If you believe that your co-parent is suffering from an undiagnosed mental health disorder, you need to get a knowledgeable and experienced family law attorney on your team to guide you through the process.

Often an initial divorce is just the beginning of a long process for a parent suffering with a personality disorder. The court is likely to be involved in your family, in some fashion for many years to come, as the person with a personality disorder tries to expand parenting time. The balance for the court is to allow the parent to have as much contact as they can safely have with the child or children, with a consideration of the overriding best interests of the children in ordering any parenting plan.

If your family is struggling from the effects of a personality disorder and you believe that additional intervention is needed, call our office today at (816)208-8130 to schedule your consultation to see how we may be able to assist you.