Are there some people you simply can’t negotiate with in family law disputes? The great majority of people are able to come to sensible settlements following the breakdown of a marriage or relationship, particularly after receiving good information and legal advice. But for some people, this doesn’t seem possible. And the reason for this is often because of what psychologists call ‘Personality Disorders’. These are mental health problems where the person’s personality and behaviour causes them and others severe distress. They have extreme thoughts and behaviours and have trouble coping with day-to-day life. They often don’t realise this and think there is nothing wrong with them.

Unfortunately, people with Personality Disorders are heavily over-represented among those appearing in the Family Courts. Psychologists classify Personality Disorders in various categories. These include ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’, characterised by extremely impulsive behaviour, explosive temper and unstable moods; ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’, characterised by an obsession with superiority of self, and ‘Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder’; characterised by extremely controlling behaviour, preoccupation with perfection and rigidity in their dealings with others. There are a variety of other categories too. Persons suffering these Disorders also commonly have more than one Personality Disorder, and may have other mental illnesses as well, such as depression and anxiety. Their personal relationships tend to be unstable and their disputes following separation are more complex, bitter and prolonged than for most separating couples. They make take extreme positions and become obsessed with the dispute, sometimes revelling in the drama of it all. In legal situations they can be obsessed with winning at all costs.

Psychologists say that Personality Disorders are difficult to diagnose because they must be seen in context, particularly in relation to other people. It is also easy to wrongly lable people with Personality Disorders and discriminate against them. But it is important these people be identified so they can get appropriate psychological treatment. Their behaviour can be very damaging to themselves and others because in response to stress, they act irrationally, often saying and doing inappropriate things.

It is difficult for lawyers and judges to deal with people with Personality Disorders. Nevertheless, compromise and resolution should always be the basis of family law disputes, no matter how difficult that may be. There is a strong responsibility on lawyers to help these people not to act against their own best interests, and not to put themselves and their children at risk. However, if a person’s former partner apparently has a Personality Disorder, it may be necessary to take strong and decisive action, including making urgent court applications.

It’s a wise idea to be guided by the advice of a solicitor experienced in Family Law.