Personality Disordered Co-Parents and “The System” Part 1

Ways legal and mental health professionals can assist those who must co-parent with a sick person

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.
Copyright © 2016-2018

This is Part One of a Three Part Series

Links to Parts 2 and 3 are at the bottom

There are three main points to this series:  

  1. how people with personality disorders (PD) (narcissists, sociopaths) or extremely dysfunctional/abusive natures are manipulating the communication tools used in family law and in family therapy;
  2. how “professionals” – both legal professionals and mental health professionals – are failing the families they are tasked to help by being sucked in by the PD and;
  3. how to help non-PD clients communicate with and set boundaries for the PD ex.

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.

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 ex (DSM Axis II, cluster B – most usually sociopath, psychopath or narcissist.)  Most people with many of the Axis II, Cluster B personality disorders are never officially diagnosed, so looking for that diagnosis before believing someone is personality disordered is going to be a waste of time.

This series is about those who are not 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.

As a therapist, a former psychiatric clinician, and attorney, I have been asked – more and more these days – to consult as a “divorce coach” which brings my expertise in all these fields to bear.  What that means is that I am not the person’s divorce/custody/legal attorney nor am I that person’s main therapist (though I sometimes can be).  What I do is work with a client and sometimes a client’s lawyers and/or therapists (and sometimes many more players, guardian ad litems, mediators, child protection services, social services, housing court), when that client’s ex or soon-to-be-ex is personality disordered and appears to be “gaming” the system.

I give guidance to clients on how to speak to an ex in writing, how to ask lawyers questions and what information judges may need.  I sometimes consult with a client before they hire a lawyer and speak about what questions to ask and how to evaluate the lawyer. I sometimes consult with a client as to how to pick a therapist, a mediator, a parenting coordinator, a this or a that.  I explain many psychological concepts (i.e.,  gaslighting) to lawyers and legal concepts to therapists. I am very familiar with both sides of the aisle and I know what is and is not taught in law school and what is and is not taught in graduate programs for therapists.

In court, I am sometimes more familiar with “friendly parenting” statutes than some  lawyers because I researched them – in every state and in Canada – to help clients of mine understand the law and how their ex is not acting in accordance with it or manipulating everyone to look the other way. I work with parenting coordinators – especially when the PC seems to be manipulated by the PD ex or isn’t paying much attention. I explain law to therapists and psychiatric issues to lawyers.  And teach my clients (and sometimes their lawyer and counselors) how to communicate with a PD ex.

I had a client come to me very upset over a “deal” she had struck, for several years, with a very abusive and narcissistic ex that was outside their divorce or parenting agreement. They split summer travel costs for the kids as they had never mentioned it in court papers. For years they had a fairly amicable arrangement about this, and then – last summer – after she had paid travel expenses for the kids – he said he was not paying his half and she couldn’t make him.  I reviewed the divorce and parenting agreement and then helped her write a demand letter for him to honor the implied contract that the conduct of the parties had given rise to.

Normally a contract – any contract – is based on the 4 corners of a written contract where one exists – and verbal contracts cannot change the terms and conditions of a written contract.

But when  a written contract is silent as to this one issue, and nothing in the written contract is in conflict with what appears to be an implied contract that arose from the conduct of the parties, the implied contract can be enforced. But, the question becomes: How to do that without incurring more attorney fees than the travel fees would have been?  The PD counts on you being emotionally drained, bewildered and giving up. And many times the non-PD parent does exactly that. The PD will outrun you every time.  They have stamina for all these games, whereas a normal person does not. When you’re dealing with non-disordered people, this may not turn into a huge deal, but when you’re dealing with PDs, they can turn your brain to scrambled eggs (which is what his very loopy emails were trying to do).

I reviewed his emails and, instead of sending the emotionally-charged, insulting email she was going to send him, I drafted one that was very clear about the law and the facts. She explained she had consulted an attorney and this was an implied contract that arose from their past conduct and it is absolutely enforceable. She didn’t threaten, she didn’t insult.  She simply stated facts and law succinctly.  He tried to come back with gaslighting nonsense, but she refused to play. Instead of being as upset as she was, she felt empowered.  And – he dragged his feet, but he paid.

While these are the typical scenarios, I am sometimes brought in to assess a situation for a parenting coordinator or another attorney or another therapist. I have given in-service on the law to therapists and CLEs to lawyers on psychiatric issues. I have also explained the appellate process and family law litigation to a client whose PD ex had manipulated the Family Court judge and won a difficult case at trial. She needed to understand the legalities to discuss the many issues of the case, and the behavior of her ex, with someone who understood narcissism.  She felt deep down that the judge had been manipulated, felt the judgment was very wrong and wanted to know the battle ahead…and I was very realistic with her about it. After our meeting, she decided to fight the decision. She hired an appellate lawyer, actually won her appeal and made new law in New York state.  She just needed to understand that law and to discuss it with someone who “got” what her ex managed to pull off at trial.

My first case as a “divorce coach” was when a client of mine was a transactional lawyer and the plaintiff in a high-stakes litigation. She had a high-powered NYC law firm handling her divorce but her ex was a very rich guy who was hiding a lot of money, but more than that, he was a very spoiled, very manipulative, gas-lighting, flaming narcissist. At first she was a coaching client who had read my book Getting Past Your Breakup, but as we talked and her divorce heated up, she would call me 2-3 hours a week as it evolved into an intense dramatic divorce fueled by her ex’s off-the-charts narcissism.  Even though she is an attorney, she had been doing financial documents on Wall Street for 20 years and did not remember any family law from law school. She wanted to know exactly what was happening, but her lawyers charged entirely too much money per hour to explain it. So I explained family law litigation to her for half that time, and I explained the manipulative behavior of her ex the other half of the time.  I also helped her present her thoughts to her attorneys and to draft letters in a way that would keep the narc’s “hooks” out of her.

I didn’t like the term, “divorce coach,” but I wasn’t her attorney and I wasn’t her therapist.  I explained family law litigation to her, I held her hand in court sometimes and in therapy other times, and I explained her ex to her and gave her strategies for dealing with him.

I thought that experience would be “one and done,” and though I’ve not had anything quite that case again, the amount of people asking for help dealing with this these days appears to have sky-rocketed.  Despite the general public becoming more knowledgable, the legal world and mental health world seems to be dragging – even though this is where PDs like to play their reindeer games.

The legal world is – for the most part – clueless about personality disorders and the mental health field – for the most part – is clueless about the legal system.  Both therapists and attorneys are giving clients bad advice for dealing with PD exes and it is their clients who have tire tracks all over their backs due to the professionals not “getting” what it is they are dealing with.

But Fraud on the Court Has Become Rampant

Making it even more complex, is the suspicion that many professionals in both fields have about warring exes. So many people use false accusations to involve CPS or get a protective order so that they can get a leg up in divorce or custody proceedings, that professionals will dismiss jargon or terminology that seems to be “pop culture” or pop psychology. When people bandy about the word “narcissist” like it’s nothing (when it is a very serious disorder), lawyers, judges, therapists, social services, etc., become very suspicious. I heard one lawyer say, “Oh now this narcissism thing is a thing.”

They may want to dismiss your terms out of hand and not get involved with that mess.  It’s not good to diagnose your ex as a narcissist to either your attorney or therapist.  Instead, explain the unacceptable behavior that is interfering with you or your children without labeling it. Ask your attorney what legal remedies you can pursue and ask your therapist how to put healthy boundaries in place. Make the professionals work for you.  That is their job.

Maybe You’re The One Who is a Nut

Sometimes my clients will be hysterical thinking that their lawyer or therapist (or both) think that he or she is really the PD. The PD’s lawyer or therapist or the parenting coordinator or social services – SOMEONE the PD spoke to – has suddenly put a bug in someone on your side of the fence.  You might think people are looking at your cross-eyed and suspiciously, thinking you might be the sicko in the relationship. We both know you are not, but the PD is a master manipulator. Be very careful.

Sometimes when they don’t want to pay for a mental health evaluation (it usually costs in the thousands per person) they will ask me to observe the parties and let them know what I think.

The Legal System and Your PD EX

Many of my clients have been relatively normal, low-conflict people who now find themselves being pulled and bullied into court appearances and sometimes being accused of terrible things they either didn’t do or fell into some trap set by a PD ex.

Suddenly their once-normal life is upside down and they have a revolving door of therapists, lawyers and sometimes CPS or social services are – to my client’s horror – involved.  Many times the police and the schools know the family personally and the non-PD parent is humiliated by all the people involved because of the ex’s antics.  It’s a terrible situation to be in – and if you have young children – not one that is going to quiet down any time soon.  These families need support and knowledgable professionals.

IMy 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.

The Personality Disordered Have An Audience!  Oh JOY!

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.

How “Normal” People Divorce and Co-Parent

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 “High Conflict” Family

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…

If you want to share your story with me, please email me HERE.

Go to Part 2 HERE


Copyright © Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

All Rights Reserved No Duplication is Allowed Without Explicit Permission of the Author

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About Susan J. Elliott

Author, Attorney, Grief Counselor, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, Relationship Expert, Breakup Coach BA English Mount Holyoke College, magna cum laude, High Honors, Phi Beta Kappa M.Ed., Counseling Psychology, Cambridge College J.D. University of California, Berkeley Licensed to practice law in federal and state courts in NY. Licensed but Inactive in Texas and District of Columbia Creator of the Getting Past Your Past and Getting Past Your Breakup programs, seminars, workshops, bootcamps, videos, blogs and podcasts Author of Getting Past Your Breakup, Getting Back Out There and the GPYP Workbook
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