This is Part One of a Three Part Series
As an attorney, a self-help author, a breakup counselor and a former psychiatric clinician, I can clearly see, in my clients and readers, the frustration and despair that comes from trying to deal and co-parent with a personality disordered (PD) ex, most usually sociopath, psychopath or narcissist. The disorder can also include some borderline personalities, abusers and some “Axis I” diagnoses such as Bipolar when it is complicated even further with features such as psychosis.
In most instances, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder and is not representative of the behaviors indicated in this article. For the record, in very rare instances, mood disorders can have complications such as psychotic features where the person is in an altered state. Sometimes their psychosis seriously curtails their ability to control their mood disorder and they can become manipulative or extremely self-centered and irrational. This article is not, in any way, talking about people with mood disorders such as depression, bipolar, etc.
This is those who are not just defined only by the DSM Axis II diagnosis. Instead, for this article, they are defined as extremely unhealthy, toxic, self-centered, manipulative individuals whose life goal seems to revolve around making other people miserable. Their ruse is one of long-suffering victim and caring parent, when nothing could be further from the truth.
There are two main points to this article: 1) how PDs are abusing the communication tools and 2) how “professionals” are failing the families they are tasked to help by being sucked in by the PD.
When PDs land in social services or in court, I have seen too many unskilled professionals – assigned to assist these high conflict individuals – making the situation worse. This is the first of a 3 part article suggesting how to make the situation better for all involved.
My own frustration comes from years in both the psychiatric and legal fields. In each field I have witnessed unskilled professionals exacerbating difficult and dangerous situations. When dealing with PDs, it is important that helpers help and not enable. When dealing with PDs, it is important to not be another pawn in the game. When dealing with PDs, it is important to know that one is dealing with a PD.
My frustration also comes from countless stories over many years, across several states, from both men and women, about parenting coordinators and court ordered therapists, judges and attorneys, who are fooled by the personality disordered.
The goal of the psychiatric and the legal community should be to protect children and to assist “high conflict” families in navigating the waters of custody and visitation.
Knowing both the legal system and the psychiatric system well, I can see how those who are put in place to help are actually hurting the situation because they fail to recognize the blatant lies, manipulation and control exerted by the personality-disordered parent. This inability to see the PD for what he or she really is hurts everyone, but most especially the children, that the system is supposedly designed to help.
Many parenting coordinators and social workers are unaware how sociopaths, psychopaths and narcissists behave. Mental health training does not usually involve a lot of information in dealing with the personality disordered. No one should be working in the family court system without knowing how to recognize and deal with these corrosive, abusive and manipulative people. Because if you cannot understand how a PD operates, chances are he or she has been operating on you.
The PD parent is usually an untreated, and many times undiagnosed, sociopath, psychopath or narcissist. Each of these disorders has inherent manipulation and bullying at its core. Often the non-PD partner has fled the marriage in anger, fear, dismay, confusion and as a co-therapist friend of mine once described them, in less polite terms, “Not knowing whether to (street slang for defecate) or go blind.” Crude saying but I’ve not met a non-PD parent who did not nod when I used that expression to describe their state of mind when they had finally had enough.
Into the legal system they are thrust. Few people take up as much time, legal resources, mental health resources, and social services as the PD litigant. Not content to have battled it out, and most likely worn down, their ex-partner as well as attorneys and judges, they continue to fray the nerves of parenting coordinators, family therapists and social workers. Drama is their game and everyone is invited to play.
When someone is personality disordered – both in the classic sense and the way they are defined for this article – they have no sense of reality. They feel betrayed and wounded, even if their disordered behavior drove their ex-partner to flee from the relationship. To them, they are the victim of the non-PD, and the non-PD must pay forever and ever. Once the courts get involved, it becomes apparent that the couple needs some oversight, usually in the forms of guardians ad litem, parenting coordinators, social workers and therapists.
To the PD this means one thing: an audience. There is now an audience to which they can air their grievances over and over again, an audience that will listen to them castigate their partner and show the world what a victim they are and how they have been wronged. There is no slight so small nor an error so minimal that it won’t be uncovered and shared with this captive audience. If that’s not enough, they will resort to slanted views, bizarre renditions of their paranoid delusions and even blatantly made up scenarios.
The audience is in for a theatrical rendition so dramatic, so psychologically deep, so fraught with emotion and so dripping with suspense, that Shakespeare would be jealous.
It used to be that divorcing PDs would call and call—everyone and anyone. They were not content to be put on hold or leave messages with an assistant or secretary. They would call guardian ad litmus, lawyers, judges, court clerks. Then they would call Child Protective Services, teachers, school nurses, and newspapers. Anyone who would listen to their tale of woe.
In this day and age, they have unfettered access to email and will email long diatribes and written assaults on their co-parent and copy the entire world on the manifesto. Every single slight or error by the ex-partner is excruciatingly detailed and couched in some “I’m saving the children from you…” language as the basis for the harangue.
Technology has enabled the ballistic, bullying nature of the personality disordered, “co-parent.”
I put “co-parent” in quotes because there is no true co-parenting with the personality disordered. That is a lost cause and the shame of the legal system is that it not only refuses to recognize it, but it enables the charade that such a thing is possible. It is not possible, not now and not ever. The other shame of the legal system is that it fails the non-PD co-parent in a myriad of ways, but allowing this abusive email to be part of the “co-parenting” narrative is a large part of the failure.
Many divorced couples finalize their divorce and never again set foot in a court house or in a lawyer’s office, but parent the children in different ways. For many there is no middle ground and each person has come to face it as “the way it is.” They construct their lives and their children’s lives with a minimum of conflict and sometimes vastly different parenting styles. They may not like what the other one does but they live with it. They may have very unkind words away from the children about their ex, but they live with it. They may wish a hole would open up and swallow the ex whole, but when that fails to happen, they live with it.
No one is terribly happy with the arrangements or the ex’s parenting style, but they live with it. They exchange the children for visitation, they grumble about child support and they communicate in clipped, terse styles with an undercurrent of exasperation and disdain. There may be occasional disagreements and blowups, but for the most part, every one sucks it up until the children graduate from college and then they don’t have to see each other until a wedding rolls around. The courts never hear from them and they have never set foot in the office of a parenting coordinator.
The people who take up the time, energy and resources are usually those who are in high conflict “dire straits” situations which include the couples where one is personality disordered.
Why? Because the personality disordered demand an audience. No matter what disorder they suffer from, chances are they want witness to their victimhood and they want to bully and bluster their way through life.
Requiring a parenting plan and a parenting coordinator gives them a magnificent playground and a sometimes clueless playground monitor. The non-PD co-parent feels led to the gallows and oftentimes, that is exactly the correct analogy if the parenting coordinator, the social workers, the social services workers and the therapists either fail to recognize the disorder for what it is or refuse to do what needs to be done in this situation: set boundaries and refuse to allow the PD to be the playground bully getting his or her own way by kicking and screaming and threatening to take the ball and go home.
In my book Getting Past Your Breakup, I detail how to maintain “no contact” with a co-parent. In the book and in my practice, I tell all my co-parent clients, no matter the relationship with the ex, to keep communication as brief and business like as possible. I also detail, in both of my books, how to have and maintain healthy boundaries with everyone from your children to your ex to your boss to the mailman.
In a highly charged emotional situation, that is difficult. It takes work, it takes practice and it’s easy, in the beginning, to be sucked into mental and emotional games. But after failing a few times, many people (non PD people) start to catch on to the fact that brief, business like communication is best for all involved and the more you do it, the better life gets. Even if an ex is full of anger, unless they are PD, eventually the anger and bitterness disappears and child visitation and support goes as smoothly as possible. Brief and business-like communication is the method by which healing happens and good co-parenting begins.
Because PDs are disordered and have agendas that have nothing to do with healthy communication, good co-parenting or anything else, it is absolutely useless to try to convince them that this is good for all involved. Though they bluster about caring about the welfare of the children, they don’t really care. They are completely incapable about caring about their children’s well-being unless they can use the lack of well-being as a bat with which to beat their ex over the head.
The issue comes in when non-PD parents, in an effort to shield themselves from ruthless, pointless attacks and a never-ending recitation of past offenses (both real and imagined) attempts to set boundaries and keep communication brief and business-like. Both of my books Getting Past Your Breakup and Getting Back Out There have chapters on setting boundaries. More to come in the next 2 parts. Stay tuned…
Copyright 2007-2017 Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author
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