Courts Beware of Individuals with High Conflict Personality Disorders.
Posted by Joan Lachkar on March 5, 2020 - 10:54am
Updated March 5, 2020 - 11:00am
This Paper Was Presented at the CAMFT Conference 2016
Courts Beware of Individuals With High Conflicts Personality Disorders., e.g, The Narcissist, The Borderline, the Sociopath!
Many practitioners treat patients who are experiencing difficulties with borderline partners in legal mediation. A person with borderline personality disorder for example will fight to the bitter end, even to the extent of sacrificing self and others (spouse, children, family, career, reputation) until they achieve their final goal―revenge. Therapists and legal officials are continually perplexed as to why people continue to battle without ever reaching conflict resolution. On the surface couple problems seem to revolve around children, sex, money, commitment, work, outside intrusions (ex-spouses, in-laws, friends, sports, pets, hobbies). But the underlying issues are more about control, domination, envy, jealousy, shame, guilt, submission, victimization, and oedipal rivals.
Keywords: Borderline, malignant borderline, narcissist, malignant narcissist, malicious intent, mediation, conjoint therapy, cross-cultural, psychodynamics, primitive defenses
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way ~Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Suddenly my head begins to spin. I feel dizzy and confused. My head keeps going round and round. In front of me sits a married couple; they go on and on in circles, going nowhere. A feeling of despair overwhelms me as I think to myself. This couple needs to be in therapy. I then realize l am the therapist!
Nothing is as highly emotionally charged as couples going through divorce and custody battles, a scenario often characterized by lies, false accusations, and out-of-control behavior in front of children. Often the children are turned into “little mediators,” forced to grow up much too soon and left feeling responsible for their parents’ divorce. In recent years an increasing number of mediators, lawyers, and court officials have consulted extensively with clinicians and other mental health professionals about how to deal with “impossible couples,” those dominated by primitive defenses and highly volatile behaviors. I refer to these highly charged emotional reactions as “V-spots,” the highly charged, unresolved archaic injury each partner stirs up in the other (Lachkar 1998, 2004, 2008a, 2008b, 2009, 2011, 2013).
In recent years, Borderline Personality Disorder has gained attention, especially in the field of divorce and custody litigation. Marsha Linehan (1993) the pioneer of Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT), described borderlines as akin to third-degree burn center patients, who are in agony at the slightest provocation. Even when conflict resolution is reached or offered to the malignant borderline, it is repudiated. The borderline’s unleashed aggression means that sabotage, vengeance, and retaliation disrupt any potential for resolution, replaced by a pervasive shame/blame and attack mentality.
What is the Difference Between Mediation and Couple Therapy?
Mediation has become a common and alternative attempt to resolve domestic disputes in lieu of court involvement. Some court systems require mediation as mandatory. It is the attempt to help partners come to terms with disagreements and find ways to reach conflict resolution without causing either emotional or physical harm to themselves or their partners. Reaching resolution is not based on a person’s past, personality defects, or traumatic experience; it is more about who is most qualified to care for the child.
Couple therapy provides a more in-depth approach to working through the couple conflicts and disagreements. It takes into account such matters as family conflict, childhood trauma, and attachment disorders. Couple therapy is an experience that occurs among three persons. I coined the term “couple transference” (Lachkar 2004, 2007, 2008a, 2012, 2013, 2014) to show how the couple projects onto the therapist. The deeply emotional experience of intense communication and feelings that therapy entails begins with acknowledging the profound challenges of a primitive relationship and matures into the awareness of healthy dependency needs and mutual respect. The couple presents its own dramatic narrative, and with each session the curtain opens on the opportunity to effectuate a new experience. Unlike mediation, couple therapy does not have a group of laws to back it up. You can’t say, for instance, “Well, there is a law that says you must take your wife out for Valentine’s Day and buy her flowers!” The experience is more subjective, whereby the needs of the couple gradually unfolds as therapy continues. Couple therapy can be long or short term, whereas mediation is designed to be brief.
A Sketch of the Borderline
The key to handling borderlines when mediation with their partners bogs down is to understand the nuances and motivation of the borderline persona. Borderlines are often “as-if” personalities and have an exquisite false self (Winnicott, 1965). They can dupe the most seasoned therapists, let alone court officials, with the façade of being the poor victims, the betrayed and abandoned ones. In an attempt to defend against shame, they are determined to win and prove their self-righteousness at any cost. They may appear normal, genuinely concerned about the welfare of the family, are intelligent and often charming. But behind this façade they scheme to coerce their partner into the “bad parent” role (in psychoanalytic terms, this is known as splitting and projective identification).
Borderlines (Grotstein, 1981) suffer from privation rather than deprivation and are dominated primarily by fears of abandonment, betrayal, deception, bonding/attachment, and extreme reactions to events and behaviors of others. Their inability to deal with loss and internal deficits and their tendency to blame/shame keep them in an endless state of impoverishment. In an attempt to defend against shame, they often turn to substance abuse, addictive relationships, promiscuity, deviant and compulsive behaviors, addictions, suicide ideation, victimization, and sacrificial objects. They are impulsive, reckless and have self-harming/suicidal tendencies and exhibit extreme self-sacrificing behavior. They promise the world but rarely following through. They cannot take responsibility for their own shortcomings, exhibit poor reality testing, poor impulse control and lack a self-regulatory mechanism; thus their feelings and reactions are often disproportionate to the reality of their environment.
The internal conflicts of borderlines center primarily on shame, abandonment, betrayal, deprivation, boundary confusion, and lack of identity. Because of their lack of impulse control and poor reality testing, any hint of abandonment or betrayal can trigger an intense outburst of rage and revenge to “get back/get at” or teach the other a lesson. They see themselves as the victims, the scapegoats, and when betrayed will spend the rest of their lives getting even at the expense of self or others until they reach their final destination―revenge! In court custody cases, borderlines are the ones that will sacrifice themselves, their children, their families, their finances and do whatever they feel is necessary to revenge the ones they perceived to have betrayed or abandoned them. It is not unusual for borderlines to keep their spouses as a courtroom hostage. They not only inflict pain on others but harm themselves.
It is because of you I went bankrupt and now I will make your life miserable and show you how that feels!
The borderline has a defective sense of self, suffers from early trauma in the maternal attachment bond, and is often a product of abandonment by parents who were absent, alcoholic, abusive, or physically/ emotionally unavailable. They perpetuate the cycle by staying in abusive, addictive or destructive relationships, enacting the role of victim (bonding through pain that is either self-inflicted or other inflicted). Because the borderline has never separated from his mother, he fuses with her. As much as he needs her, he must destroy her. The borderline’s partner becomes a stand-in for the need to inflict pain on the mother. “Now I have a chance to let her know what it feels like to be a victim, a scapegoat. What better place than in a family court?”
The Malignant Borderline
There are many different types of borderlines. The most severe is the malignant borderline, the main focus of this article. These are the ones who are manipulative, cruel, controlling, sadistic, and will do anything to maintain some semblance of a connection (also known as parasitic bonding). They have no boundaries and treat their spouse and children as objects, pawns, and as scapegoats in which to project their desire to control and dominate, to maintain power.
The malignant borderline answers to a higher power, often identifying with a charismatic leader or an idealized object in an attempt to stabilize their fragile personalities. Therapists and mediators may easily miss this aspect, which helps the borderline appear to be normal although he is anything but. Borderlines have delusional self-states. At the very core, borderlines are dominated by malicious intent, driven to fight, to destroy, and to sabotage anything practical, including good advice or reasonable offers. They are manipulative and cruel, and impervious to self-inflicted or other-inflicted pain.
Many are very high-functioning professionals and can be very charming, charismatic and, alluring. This creates ambivalence and confusion not only in their partners but also in judges and mediators, and even experienced therapists. The “victimized” borderline coerces others to have pity for him. The malignant borderline is contentious, will sacrifice all in order to seek revenge against the spouse. I refer to them as domestic terrorists, including those who move to the far end of the spectrum and actually commit physical domestic violence. The other form of abuse is covert and insidious. This involves doing things like keeping the spouse in court custody battles for years on end without ever reaching or even seeking conflict resolution. These are the bullies, the ones who act big and strong to prove they have power and dominance over another human being. The sense of power becomes like a drug. In the end they learn they are not above the law. There is a bigger bully, one that seeks to do what is right—the law of justice.
The Narcissistic/Borderline Couple
Courts are becoming more familiar with a type of couple who can make mediation a nightmare. This is the narcissistic/borderline couple, who brings with them a malicious nature and resistance to reaching conflict resolution. I refer to the interactions of this dyadic unit as “the dance,” how one person projects a negative feeling into the other and how the other then identifies or over-identifies with that which is being projected (in analytic terms known as projective identification). These behaviors and interactions are circular, never-ending, painful and destructive. The revelation is that each partner needs the other to play out his or her own personal relational drama. In this beleaguered relationship are two developmentally arrested people who bring archaic experiences embedded in old sentiments into the present.
Clinicians, lawyers, mediators, counselors and court personnel are usually baffled by this type of couple and often ask, “Why are they doing this? Don’t they want peace or happiness? Are they crazy? Masochistic? Sadistic?” On the surface, they may appear that way, but lurking in the shadow are deeper issues. Either consciously or unconsciously each partner needs the other to stir up many highly unresolved conflicts and enact their psychological dance. Unfortunately, the court stage often becomes the platform for these enactments. In court custody battles, the narcissist takes center stage, acting out exaggerated, omnipotent and grandiose entitlement fantasies, while behind the curtain the borderline is scheming, ready to fight and achieve revenge. The bitter paradox is that as much as these couples battle, they are emotionally glued to each other. They are terrified of being alone, and depend on each other to feel alive. Even after divorce they maintain a bond, albeit a destructive and parasitic one. They cannot feel a sense of aliveness unless they are fused in a destructive dysfunctional relationship.
It has been over twenty years and my husband to this day refuses to pay for our daughter’s college education because he still feels I betrayed and abandoned him!
Narcissistic/ borderline traits and characteristics are not clear and concise entities. They vacillate and overlap. They also tend to seep over into other disorders (Lachkar 2008a, 2008b, 2009, 2011, 2013; Mahari 2009). One cannot understand a borderline without understanding an oppositional type like a narcissist. For example the borderline responds more to confrontation or a “hard object”―someone who can play hard ball with him/her―whereas the narcissist responds more to empathy and understanding. The narcissist is dominated by fear of loss of specialness and entitlement, whereas the borderline is dominated mainly by abandonment anxiety and betrayal. While the narcissist seeks to be the special child of God, the borderline is busy just trying to prove he exists.
You know when you are around narcissists because they are all about themselves. They believe the world owes them something, and when feeling not properly mirrored will withdraw or isolate themselves. The narcissist cannot tolerate criticism and has to be right. They value success, fame, physical beauty, wealth, material possessions, and power. Narcissistic self-love extends to the exclusion of the needs of others. One can imagine how this arouses feelings of unworthiness, and abandonment in the borderline, who already has a thwarted sense of self. Narcissists cannot tolerate their own dependency needs and unwittingly project their unwanted “needy “selves onto their love objects, whom they at first idealize, only later to attempt to destroy them when they are no longer useful. During mediation and in court cases, narcissists often put their partners in the most compromising positions.
The malignant narcissists tend to be cruel, malicious, and sadistic (Kernberg, 1991a, 1991b, 1992, Vaknin (2015). They constantly need to impose their beliefs, traditions, and ideology on others and cannot tolerate anyone disagreeing with or questioning them. They are condescending and use incendiary remarks to inflame others. They are subject to uncontrollable rages, typically lack compassion and empathy, have no regard for anyone other than themselves and coerce others to reinforce their beliefs or talents (real or make believe). They are selfish, manipulative and only exist for their own self-serving purposes. They are the abusers, the molesters, the robbers, the scam artists. In custody cases, they will lie, cheat, and cajole. They treat others as objects to be used and tossed away.
Primitive Defenses and Psychodynamics
Basic primitive defenses that characterize the narcissist/borderline couple include such defenses as splitting, projection, projective identification, idealization, omnipotent denial, and magical thinking. What follows are some basic psychodynamics that cohabitate with these defenses. When these defenses and dynamics are in full operation, the ego goes into complete dysfunctionality:
• Shame vs. Guilt
• Envy vs. Jealousy
• Splitting/Projective Identification and Dual
• Projective Identification
• Dependency vs. Omnipotence
• Competition/Rivalry (unresolved oedipal conflicts)
• Reality vs. Magical Thinking
• Cross-Cultural Psychodynamics
Where East Meets West
These psychodynamics are often exacerbated in cross-cultural couples, whom we increasingly see in practice. In examining and treating cross-cultural couples, we must bring to awareness the knowledge that many cultures operate within a different moral compass. People from cultures that vary from ours assume a very different role. Therapists and mediators need to be aware of these differences if they are to effectively deal with and treat cross-cultural couples. Those from Middle East and Asian countries come from vastly different backgrounds than those from countries such as France, Germany, Spain, and England, which, although diverse in many aspects, share many of the same values and Judeo-Christian beliefs. Although Israel, for instance, is a democratic country and its values and standards are not too far apart from ours, there are definite cultural difference. The treatment points below stem from a few of these cultural differences.
Western culture: It is unlawful to beat your wife.
Eastern culture: A man can beat his wife when she does not comply, but must stop when she does. (Quoran 14:34)
Western culture: Upon separation, there can be a division of property.
Eastern culture: There is no division of property.
Western culture: In separation or divorce, there can be shared custody of children.
Eastern culture: Shared custody is not common.
What dependency, shame, guilt, honor, and peace mean in one culture may have a completely different meaning in another. Even words like “opportunity” and “honor” can be poles apart. In the West we associate the term “opportunity” with one’s freedom to flourish, but in the Muslim world “opportunity” could mean the permission to stone, slaughter, or even behead a woman who exposes her arms or face or goes out in public unaccompanied. The same holds true for terms such as “honor” and “peace.” In Islamic regimes, only when all the infidels are destroyed can there be peace and harmony. Peace to them means finally getting rid of all infidels. It is not enough to understand shame without understanding the need to “save face.” Then there’s the group self vs. the individual self. Most Western psychotherapists will note that when two individuals are interacting they will express how they feel. In Asian societies the prevailing belief is that there is no need to express how one feels because the assumption is that the other will just intuitively know this. In Japan this is a form of dependency called amae.
A Final Look at the Malignant Narcissist and the Malignant Borderline
The malignant borderline shares many qualities of the malignant narcissist. Both tend to be malicious, cruel, sadistic, ruthless, lack empathy, and find a victim on whom they can inflict pain and punishment. The difference is that the malignant narcissist will inflict pain in order to fulfill his sense of power and superiority, whereas the malignant borderline will inflict pain to achieve power, control, domination, and vengeance. The malignant borderline is like the malignant narcissist in reverse. Unlike the narcissist, the malignant borderline could not care less about fame, success, beauty. The goal is getting even. The malignant borderline often engages in criminality (Klein, 1927). On the surface during divorce mediation, they appear as though they are fighting for objects or custody, but they are more about vengeance against the partner perceived to have shamed, abandoned, and betrayed them. Often they form parasitic bonds with others; when the promise of that bond is threatened, they will respond with endless and relentless shame/ blame and attacking defenses.
I told my therapist that in mediation whatever suggestion is offered to him (ex-partner), he rejects. It is obvious he is more concerned with revenge and getting back at me than reaching conflict resolution, let alone caring what is best for our children.
What both the borderline and the narcissist have in common is malevolent intent; they are the embodiment of negativity that borders on the anti-social. Both have a perverse sense of entitlement to prey on victims and get from others what they mistakenly feel is rightfully theirs. Both will take your time, money, will, sex, and emotions without any feelings of remorse or empathy. They are relentless and will keep one waiting as long as they can get away with it. In sum, what they both share is the malignant intent of their reverse superego: what is good is bad and what is bad is good. For the malignant narcissist and its inferior twin, the malignant borderline, this reverse morality is their entire world.
Grotstein, J. (198l) Splitting and projective identification. New York: Jason Aronson.
Kernberg, O. (1991a). Aggression and love in the relationship of the couple. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 39: 45‒70.
Kernberg, O. (1991b). Sadomasochism, sexual excitement, and perversion. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 39: 333‒362.
Kernberg, O. (1992). Aggression in perversity disorders and perversions. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Klein, M. (1927). Criminal tendencies in normal children. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 42: 4‒8.
Lachkar J. (1998) Narcissistic/borderline couples: A psychodynamic approach to conjoint treatment. In L. Sperry and J. Carlson, (Eds.) The disordered couple, pp. 159‒284. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Lachkar, J. (2004). The narcissistic/borderline couple: New approaches to marital therapy. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Lachkar. J. (2008a). The V-spot: Healing the “V”ulnerable spot from emotional abuse. New York: Jason Aaronson.
Lachkar, J. (2008b). How to talk to a narcissist. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Lachkar, J. (2009). How to talk to a borderline. The Therapist. San Diego: California Association for Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT).
Lachkar, J. (2011). How to talk to a borderline. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Lachkar, J. (2013). The disappearing male. New York: Taylor and Francis
Lachkar, J. (2014). Common complaints in couple therapy. New York: Taylor & Francis.
Linehan, M.M. (1993). Cognitive behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York and London: The Guilford Press.
Mahari, A. J.(2009). The borderline dance and the non-borderlines’ dilemma:www.aspergeradults.ca
Vaknin, S. (2015). Malignant self-love: Narcissism revisited. Prague and Skopie: Narcissus Publications.
Winnicott, D.W. (1965).The maturational process and the facilitating environment: New York: International Press
Send email response to Joan Lachkar
Your response will be emailed to Joan Lachkar and will not appear publicly. A copy will be sent to you for your records.