Differences in Dealing with Borderline, Narcissistic and Antisocial Clients in Family Law

© 2017 by Bill Eddy, LCSW, CFLS

By now, most family law professionals know that they are regularly dealing with some clients or opposing parties with borderline, narcissistic and/or antisocial personality disorders or at least some traits of these disorders. While in the past they were simply thought of as jerks or worse, we now know there are predictable patterns of behavior involved and generally effective ways of dealing with them.

What are their Differences?

Borderline Personalities: People with this personality disorder or traits have wide and sudden mood swings, from very friendly and rational to extremely enraged. They are about equally women and men. (Many domestic violence perpetrators have this personality style.) They constantly fear abandonment and therefore cling to their professionals with lots of phone calls, emails, etc. They can be very vengeful and yet spend a lot of time seeking vindication that their actions have been just fine and appropriate for the situation (when you can see that the opposite is true).

Narcissistic Personalities: Those with this personality disorder or traits see themselves as very superior people and spend a lot of time insulting and demeaning those around them, including their professionals. They are about two-thirds men and one-third women. They are often very charming at first, but soon it becomes obvious that they lack empathy, are self-absorbed, can’t handle any personal feedback (but they can give it), make demands but don’t respond to requests, feel entitled, ask for favors, feel victimized much of the time, and may become enraged when they feel treated unfairly (even when it’s because of their own behavior).

Antisocial Personalities: This personality disorder (also known as sociopathic) is driven to dominate others, to violate social laws and norms, to lie a lot, to engage in high-risk schemes, to be con artists, to make lots of threats and many end up in jail (but many others don’t). Yet they can be extremely charming and can appear very reasonable in public. Many of them enjoy hurting others and some enjoy the thrill of using the family court system to punish those who challenge them. Some are frequent spousal abusers. Most are men.

More than One: Many (perhaps half) of those with one personality disorder also have another one. While these are three out of ten possible personality disorders, these are the three we see most commonly in today’s family court. If you’re dealing with someone with two or all three of these, just do what is suggested below for both or all three of them.  

First, What to Avoid

With all of these personality disorders, there are four approaches that you may commonly use with ordinary clients that you should avoid with personality-disordered clients:

  1. Avoid trying to give them insight into their own behavior.
  2. Avoid emphasizing the past.
  3. Avoid emotional confrontations.
  4. Avoid telling them they have a personality disorder or high-conflict personality.

From my observations, family lawyers, judges, mediators and others spend about 80% of their time with high-conflict clients making these mistakes over and over again. Not only do they not help, they make your relationship with your client much more difficult and make them much less likely to improve their behavior.

Give Them an EAR Statement℠

All people with personality disorders have relationship problems. They should really be called “inter-personal” disorders. They are stuck in a narrow pattern of self-sabotaging interpersonal behavior that triggers those around them to feel anger, fear and desires to get away from them. The effective family law professional can over-ride the urge to fight or flee by learning to give their clients EAR Statements: statements that show empathy, attention and respect. (For more on this, see article Calming Upset People with EAR or webinar Calming Upset People with an EAR Statement.)

However, you can be more specific if you think you’re dealing with one of these high-conflict personalities:

Borderline: They really like empathy, so focus on statements that show caring: “I can see how frustrated you are about this situation.” Or: “I know how important this must be for you.” Or: “I feel for you. I want to help.” They also really like attention, so be clear about how available you are or aren’t, so they know what to expect. “I want to give you the attention you need, but I’m not always available on short notice so you can leave a voicemail message or send a short email.” DON’T give a borderline the impression that you are brushing them off. They won’t forgive you for that.

Narcissistic: They really like respect, so try to include that word at times in speaking with them. “I respect your efforts to resolve this situation.” “I respect your time and will try to work with that.” “You’re a great record-keeper.” You can also use that word referring to yourself, by asking them to respect your schedule, respect your point of view, respect your advice even if they don’t agree, etc. Be careful not to seem disrespectful or belittling of them, or you will never hear the end of it.

Antisocial: They also like respect, so use that word when it seems to fit. “I respect your success in business.” (There’s a lot of antisocial people who succeed in business, but then sabotage themselves later on.) “I respect your desire to do that, but I can’t do that because my hands are tied by the law.” Don’t waste time showing how much empathy you have for them. They don’t care and may try to use your empathy to manipulate you. “If you really cared, you would do such-and-such for me” they say.

Emphasize their Choices and Consequences

With all of these personalities, it helps to focus on the future and what their choices are. This helps them feel empowered and respected. But it also helps to talk about the positive and/or negative consequences of their choices. This is another area where there are some differences:

Borderline: Emphasize the positive consequences, especially in terms of relationships. Borderlines want to be cared about and secure. Let them know how their choices may help them gain friends, future romantic partners, bosses who really like them. This is motivating for them. It gives them hope for what’s most important—people who will care about them. But also talk about the negative consequences: the judge will not like you if you do that…, you may end up with a restraining order preventing you from seeing so-and-so, your time could be reduced with the children, or you could go to jail.

Narcissistic: Discuss their choices in terms of advantages. “You’ll look really good if you do that.” “You’ll impress ______ if you do ______.” Also, present the negative consequences: “The judge will lose respect for you if he/she finds out you have done such-and-such, so don’t do it.” Also, talk about how much different strategies will cost. “I want to help you save your money by doing this instead of that.” Emphasize that their choices are up to them. “I advise you to do this, but I respect your right to do that instead. It’s up to you.” (Of course, don’t imply a choice when it isn’t there. If they do certain actions, you may have to withdraw from the case. You can even say that, but don’t say it in a threatening tone. Say you hope that won’t be necessary.)

Antisocial: Emphasize that they have choices, as they really don’t like being dominated and told what to do. But be realistic about consequences. You can say that certain behavior will look good to the judge. But you will usually need to emphasize the negative consequences, such as going to jail, losing property, being publicly humiliated, etc.

Counseling

Two of the key characteristics of personality disorders is that they can’t reflect on their own behavior and don’t change their own behavior. Therefore, most people with personality disorders don’t think they have a problem and usually don’t go to counseling at all. In fact, if someone has voluntarily gone to counseling in the past, it is often a sign that they do not have a personality disorder, so long as they were reflecting on themselves and willing to change.

Borderline: If they go, they can do well in counseling if they have a therapist who is trained and skilled in the roller coaster of being loved and then blamed; idealized and then devalued; in-crisis and then out-of-crisis on a regular basis. The best therapists don’t panic when they are at either end of these mood swings. A good method that is popular these days for working with borderlines is Dialectical Behavior Therapy. It helps clients learn skills for managing their mood swings and relationships. The big problem is that most borderlines don’t think they need counseling and will feel abandoned by you if you suggest it. So, if you want to recommend it, make sure to emphasize that it’s to help them deal with the stress of their difficult partner, not that there’s something “wrong” with your client. But don’t expect them to go, so be matter-of-fact about it and then let go of the subject. On the other hand, some lawyers require their family law clients to be in therapy and these clients may do well once they’re coerced to be in it. Likewise, when judges order clients into batterer’s treatment groups or other group counseling, borderlines tend to bond with the group leader and the group members, so that it can be beneficial and lasting.

Narcissistic: They rarely go to counseling. They think they know more than any counselor could tell them. The only reason they sometimes go to counseling is to deal with a substance abuse problem or anxiety or some other problem. Don’t expect them to go. But if they do go and have a therapist trained in coping with the demands of a narcissistic client, some do well. Cognitive behavioral therapies have had some success with narcissists. Schema therapy is one approach that has had some success. Recommending counseling can be done in a similar fashion to that described above. However, even if a lawyer requires their clients to be in therapy, most narcissists would rather fire their lawyers than stay in therapy. So, even if they start, they usually drop out. They may attend when ordered into a batterer’s group or drug treatment group by a judge, but they are more likely to try to overturn the order and may delay going as long as possible.

Antisocial: These clients are the least likely to change, and their condition may be the most genetic and unchangeable. They aren’t recommended for individual counseling, because they manipulate therapists and may learn psychological skills for manipulating others in their life. And they aren’t recommended for batterer’s treatment groups because they try to undermine the group leader. However, some do well in intensive group drug treatment programs, but they have to have really skilled leaders to manage their disruptive behavior. Unfortunately, the best “treatment” for many antisocial personalities is jail time—because they really don’t want to be dominated and yet the structure is often the best for managing their antisocial behavior.

Conclusion

Personality disorders are increasing in our family court systems, so that lawyers, judges, mediators and others need to learn about them and how to deal with them. This article has just touched on several of the slightly different strategies that family law professionals can use to help them as clients. This article did not address the realities of dealing with personality disorders when they are the opposing party, the unrepresented opposing party or even the opposing counsel. For more information on all of these issues, see my book High Conflict People in Legal Disputes, 2nd Edition, 2016.

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Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist and mediator. He is the President of High Conflict Institute, which provides training and consultation for dealing with high-conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books on high-conflict personalities, including two new books: Dating Radar (2017) co-authored with Megan Hunter and 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life (available February 2018) and has developed the following methods for managing high-conflict people in any situation: New Ways for Families®New Ways for Mediation℠New Ways for Work℠, The CARS Method℠ and BIFF Response®. To learn more about our training, coaching, consultation and videos, visit us at www.HighConflictInstitute.com.