5 ways to protect yourself when divorcing a sociopath
by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed. Copyright 2008-2017
As I write about in my 3-part series on Co-Parenting with the Personality Disordered, going through a divorce and/or child custody/support/visitation with a personality disordered person is a nightmare. As an attorney who spent years as a psychiatric clinician, I have watched – in horror sometimes—how the legal system can thrust someone trying to escape a sociopath right back into the sociopath’s lap.
Divorce is hard enough without feeling re-victimized by the system you’re depending on to protect you from someone who has harmed you. Living with a sociopath is traumatic and, too often, the parties present in court as equally sane, or the non-personality disordered spouse actually looks like the crazy person.
In graduate school I worked at a long-term alcohol and drug treatment facility. Many times the families would come for a visit and the partner of the alcoholic/drug addict would look aged and haggard compared to the addict. They also seemed much more unhinged than the addict/alcoholic. As often is the case, living with someone who is mentally ill or has an addiction takes a toll –many times much worse than being an active addict or having an untreated mental illness.
But what is a sociopath? Too often pop culture latches onto a label and indiscriminately tosses it around. Currently, this is the case where sociopaths and narcissists are concerned. My article on the Pathological Narcissist is HERE and attempts to explain the difference between normal narcissism (that everyone has) and narcissism that is pathological. So, too, is the case with a sociopath. Sometimes we all fail at empathy or personal insight, but it’s not chronic as it is with sociopaths. So be careful in using this label.
It’s a very damming and somewhat unusual for someone to have a DSM Axis 2 Cluster B diagnosis (Cluster B is called the dramatic, emotional, and erratic cluster.) Personality disorders are not very treatable and people who are antisocial personality disordered or narcissistic personality disordered typically don’t show up in the mental health milieu.
But if a person actually IS a sociopath, it’s a piece of information you absolutely need to know. It’s helpful to understand the pathology because compromise is often futile and they attack in creative ways using anything they can. It’s helpful to know your ex is a sociopath so that when they reject reasonable propositions, you know that is the reason why. What is not helpful is trying to persuade them that they are a sociopath or to try to deal with them in a sane and rational manner, hoping it will have an effect. It won’t. So use the label ONLY to understand what you are dealing with and for no other purpose. Use the label to understand that “fair and reasonable” is not a goal (ever) of the sociopath. Reasonableness is often seen as weakness and you become prey. You can share some episodes with your divorce attorney and hopefully he or she has encountered sociopaths prior and is knowledgeable about personality disorders and knows how to work around it.
A sociopath has “Anti-social” Personality Disorder which doesn’t mean they are withdrawn or shy but that they do not abide by decent person behavior standards set up by society.
But it’s not readily apparent. Initially sociopaths exude charm, intelligence, and grace. They suck people in and then suck people dry. After you get to know them you realize they are not rational thinkers, they are accusers and manipulators without a shred of guilt or remorse about their behavior. They are unreliable, insincere and pathologically dishonest. They often have delusions of grandeur or talk themselves up in lofty ways that have no relationship to reality. They have NO personal insight, fail to learn from their mistakes, blame everyone and everything for whatever befalls them, like to play the victim, and are judgmental and harsh on everyone else while excusing themselves from every possible responsibility.
In divorce proceedings, most judges and courts have to “split the baby” and that requires compromise and an understanding that neither party is going to be completely happy with the outcome, but it’s still fair. Sociopaths do not care about fair. They ascribe more to the scorched Earth theory that everything and everyone is going to burn in their wake if they don’t get things their way.
If they took the direct approach to this, they would be easy to recognize and easier to stop. But they don’t. They are often charming and affable people who use their alluring ways to wheedle and weasel their way in and to gain support of strangers. This is probably how you got sucked in in the first place.
During a divorce, the sociopath will attempt to charm attorneys, social workers, child protective services, guardians ad litem, therapists etc. They will present as helpless victims, often lying in great detail as a means to an end. When “the system” seems to be believing them, oftentimes the co-parent spouse who has been the sociopath’s victim feels even more isolated and alone.
Most courts use “best interest of the child” as the standard for fairness in divorce proceedings. Most parents adhere to and abide by court orders that are crafted to give children of divorce the fairest decisions possible. That is, unless the parent is a sociopath. They will never recognize that a child needs two loving and caring parents to survive divorce. They only recognize the co-parent as the enemy who must be defeated at all costs.
Because that would work immediately against them if it was obvious, the sociopath engages in subtle but steady warfare. They will fight for custody and/or visitation that is more than they actually want and many times more than they can handle. To achieve this end, they engage in baseless accusations toward the other parent. This is not about wanting the children or even loving the children, it’s about the need to control, and often destroy, the other parent. Although they bandy about the term “good for the children,” their behavior is anything but. Someone who has their children’s best interest at heart does not seek to destroy the child’s other parent.
Staying out of the divorce is in the best interest of the children and even the most dysfunctional parent can understand this. Not sociopaths. They will inappropriately involve children in the custody and visitation issues and deny it. Often they wage warfare against the co-parent through the children.
Sociopaths work feverishly in many cases to alienate their children from the other parent. Many states recognize parental alienation as a tactic that is opposed to “best interest of the child.” To tamp down the tendency to alienate a child from a former partner, many courts are emphatic that “best interest of the child” includes parental behavior that encourages relationships with the co-parent. Unfortunately, many judges and lawyers can’t see the alienation that takes place and sociopaths are masters of deception, manipulation and in alienating the children from the other parent.
Despite it being LAW in many jurisdictions that parental alienation should weigh AGAINST a parent, too often sociopaths are so good at subtle manipulation that the alienation is completely lost on the court. A good divorce lawyer, for EITHER SIDE, will recognize the pattern and make it stop. It is the DUTY of all attorneys in divorce proceedings to protect the best interest of the child and to guard against and stamp out any attempts of alienation by their client or the opposition’s client. If you are being targeted by your ex who is attempting to alienate you from your children, let your lawyer know. If you are unrepresented, keep a log and speak to the guardian ad litem assigned to represent your children. It is often a long battle to get people to recognize the alienation but if you are persistent and honest, it will ring true for them eventually.
Many people going through divorce engage in games, tactics, and one-upmanship. Again, it’s not unique to sociopaths. What is unique to them is they are fueled by anger and the desire to destroy the other. It’s amazing that they never tire of it.
In almost all of my writing and in many of my videos, I speak to “frame of reference.” In other words, we all see the world the way that we are. That is why liars never believe anyone else and thieves are locking up their belongings. When someone is honest and reasonable, they believe that most people are as well. This is a huge mistake when dealing with a sociopath. DO NOT think that any reasonableness or honesty will be appreciated or that the sociopath will respond in kind. It’s IMPORTANT to understand you are not dealing with a rational or fair person and you are not dealing with someone who is capable of rational or fair thoughts and dealing.
When divorcing a sociopath:
- KEEP TRACK OF EVERY VERBAL EXCHANGE: It is very important to note and keep a log of all threats, manipulation, behavior, insults etc. It is also extremely important not to engage. I believe that most divorcing parents should keep communication to a minimum and confined to “business-like” exchanges: short and to the point. Do not engage in emotional exchanges whether positive or negative. Have as little contact as possible. In Getting Past Your Breakup, I devote a chapter to helping the children through a parental breakup. It is very important, especially when dealing with a sociopath, that you try to keep things as calm and as “normal” as you can during the divorce.
Avoid getting sucked into arguments and disagreements with the ex. Do not respond to any invective filled email or text and tell the ex that the minute you see an insult or accusation in an email or text you are deleting it. If the exchanges become too much, enlist the aid of your attorney. I know of one “parenting coordinator” who failed to see angry, insulting emails and texts as “abuse” when they clearly are. Sometimes the people involved in your case are clueless. Refuse to be abused by raising any harassing or abusive texts and emails to the court.
- DO NOT MODIFY OR ALLOW MODIFICATION TO COURT ORDERS:It is very important to obey to all court orders and not to modify visitation or support. I wrote in another article about a parent who allowed her ex (clearly a sociopath) to take their daughter to a father/daughter dance on a night that was not his. The exchange became a horror show whereby the police were called, he accused her of assault and she lost custody of her daughter for months based on his lies and deception. The wheels of justice turn slowly. The judge most familiar with the case was on vacation, the District Attorney failed to view the video; the Family Services caseworkers were new.
Many things happened that delayed the hearing. She was eventually exonerated based on video evidence and her daughter returned to her care, but in the meantime, the ex turned her daughter against her. It was parental alienation to the nth degree and the attorneys and therapists recognized it ONLY after the damage was done.
Not only was there much damage done to the mother/daughter relationship but the constant mental barrage by the father about the mother had wounded the child as well. She was frightened to death to return to a mother who had never harmed her and railed against her teachers, her therapist and anyone who would listen. She became a behavior problem and openly defiant against anyone who tried to help facilitate the reconciliation with her mother. The many months of being brainwashed had worked and she had a very skewed view of the world, including her own mother. She may be scarred for life at this point. At no time did the sociopath care to understand the harm being done. At no point did he see that his daughter needed her mother and that to fill her head with gigantic and vicious lies was doing her harm. All he managed to understand was that he “won.”
All this destruction happened because the non-personality disordered parent was trying to be “nice” and “kind” and “reasonable” but those efforts were unappreciated. Instead the sociopath pounced on the opportunity to “win” a battle and may have ultimately won the war for the daughter’s affections. The result of giving in ONE NIGHT was devastating. She did not want to be the “bad guy” on the night of the dance but the events of that night forced her daughter into the clutches of a mentally ill person who convinced her that her mother was a horrible human being. For months the mother had no contact with the daughter who was being influenced, day in and day out, by a sociopathic father determined to break any tie the daughter had to her mother. Now she is not only perceived as a bad guy, but a terrible monster. By giving in ONE NIGHT, the sociopath saw an opportunity to pounce on a weakened co-parent and blasted full steam ahead with his vile destruction of a precious mother/daughter bond. That is what sociopaths do.
DO NOT try to be reasonable and think that it will be appreciated. Stick to visitation and custody agreements and do not allow any modifications at all. The children may be upset if something like a Father/Dance comes up and it’s not father’s weekend, but that is a small price to pay to keep you and them safe from manipulation and deception. If the children are upset, let them be upset. If the sociopath accuses you of being a horrible, terrible person, so be it. The more you stick to the court orders, the less chance there is for catastrophic failure or for any requests for modification in the future. Make sure that you get the point across that you will not allow modifications of support, custody or visitation. Understand that reasonable compromise is not possible with a sociopath no matter what they say. Enforce court ordered agreements and do not let any infraction go unaddressed.
- BRING AWARENESS TO OTHERS AT A SLOW AND STEADY PACE:It is very frustrating when members of the legal profession and even the caseworkers don’t seem to “get” that they are dealing with the personality disordered. It’s very tempting to try to shove it down everyone’s throats. Be mindful of the fact that many people lie in divorce or represent facts in the light that suits them best.
Every divorce litigant has a story they want to tell and judges and attorneys who work with divorcing litigants every day are not always open to listening. I hear judges and attorneys say, “I’m not a therapist…” on a continual basis and therapists say, “I’m not a lawyer…” As someone who is a lawyer AND a therapist, I have seen both professions turn off divorcing clients when the story goes far from their field. As someone who is both a therapist and a lawyer and who has gone through a difficult divorce, I know how entwined the legal and psychological issues actually are. I think that my colleagues in each profession are attempting to keep it cut and dried and to only speak to their particular expertise, but when a divorcing litigant is personality disordered, it becomes part of the proceedings, like it or not. The least everyone can do is learn a bit about how mental illness impacts legal proceedings. But until everyone becomes so enlightened, it’s important to bring the pathology of an ex up but not so quickly that it’s perceived as a tactic on your part when it will be easily dismissed. Go slowly and try to understand that justice would move even more slowly if every divorce litigant were able to bring their emotional baggage to court. Divorce attorneys and therapists with clients going through divorce truly want to help, but they don’t always have time to listen to that which is out of their realm. Be patient and slowly bring awareness to the various players in your case.
Early on, discuss the pathology of your ex with your lawyer. It is helpful to retain a divorce attorney who is familiar with personality disorders and who can evaluate the situation as it is. Allow the attorney to insert this into the proceedings and to rely on the attorney to bring this to the sociopath’s attorney and the children’s attorney. It takes a long time, due to the disarming nature of the sociopath, for others to see him or her for what they are. It’s frustrating to see everyone else treat them as a normal litigant when they are engaging in unfair tactics on the side yet showing up with a humble smile and spouting cooperative phrases in front of others. It takes time to convince others that the sociopath is, indeed, a sociopath. Go slowly and try not to lose your mind as time goes on and the sociopath goes on playing games unabated.
- DO NOT GET LOST IN THE SOCIOPATH DIAGNOSIS: Read what you can on personality disorders but avoid the tendency to become lost in the diagnosis. Most sociopaths and narcissists who have true personality disorders are not going to go to treatment. Make sure you concentrate on you and what may have led you to become involved with a sociopath. In Getting Past Your Breakup and Getting Back Out There, there are inventories designed for you to get a clear picture of what patterns you have been in and how you can break free of them and choose healthier mates in the future.
At the same time, stay calm. It is frustrating and sometimes beyond maddening to be dealing with a sociopath. They often trigger behavior and verbal exchanges that you never thought, in a million years, you would ever engage in. Keep your cool and observe. Try very hard not to ever retaliate and never engage in what the courts deem to be “self-help.” If the sociopath invites you to play and, trust me, they will never let up on that, avoid it at all costs. Your behavior is so important at this time especially when it seems others are believing the sociopath and not you or that the world has lost its head and blaming it on you. Yes, it’s difficult but restrain yourself, restrain yourself, restrain yourself! I have counseled so many people, both as an attorney and as a therapist, involved in a divorce with a sociopath who has said to me, “I admit it, I lost it….” It is easy to do but so hard to recover from. You want to come out on top as the sane and reasonable person. Don’t get pushed to the edge.
- YOUR FIRST MISSION IT TO PROTECT YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN WITH STRONG BOUNDARIES: Both of my books delve into boundary setting because they are so important when building a healthy life. If you’re ever going to need strong boundaries, it is when you are divorcing a person with a personality disorder. Learn them now and stick to them.
Divorcing a person with a personality disorder is a grueling experience. If you are just beginning the process, try to choose a divorce attorney knowledgeable about personality disorders. At the same time begin keeping a log of all communications with the ex. If you are in a one-party state, record the conversations.
What does “one-party state” mean? In the United States, recording laws vary from state to state and they change all the time. Check your state’s law before recording anyone. Currently, California, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Washington, Nevada, and Hawaii require that consent be given for a person’s conversation to be recorded. Some states like Illinois and Massachusetts have less clear laws and others like Montana require notice but not permission meaning, “You are being recorded.” Some states have a one-time notification requirement “Any time you call me, I’m recording it.” Most other states are “one-party states” meaning that they do not require notice or permission.
If you are in a state that requires notice that they are being recorded, tell them you are recording the phone calls. If you are in a state that requires permission, you may not get it but you can always request it. Sometimes the sociopath will bluster, “I don’t care if you record me!” and there you have it. But if you are in a state that requires permission and you don’t have it, don’t record them.
Please know your state laws before you record someone. Your divorce lawyer should definitely know this. In some states, it’s a crime to record someone without their permission and in other states, you can’t use it as evidence in court but you can record and play it for someone else without being guilty of a crime. This is helpful if you need to “prove” to your divorce attorney that the sweet, charming person your lawyer sees in the courtroom is really a psychotic menace most of the time.
It bears repeating: Keep a log and stay COMPLETELY true to court orders.
Keep yourself and your children safe and know that there is an end to the madness and if you can keep yourself sane and erect strong boundaries, you will be able to navigate through the ordeal and come out on the other side a stronger and better person.
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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