This is the question Bill Eddy asks at the High Conflict Institute. His answer is illuminating and is something that many of us who have had to deal with ex partners with high conflict personalities (HCP) understand.
Bill recognises in particular that there is often only one person in the family court room with a HCP and they are the ones that can end up ‘winning’ because they fool the courts like they fooled us when we met them. I highly recommend the whole article (exert reproduced below).
Disorders in the Court
Based on my experience for 12 years as a child and family therapist (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), followed by over 20 years as a family lawyer (Certified Family Law Specialist), I estimate that a majority of the clients in today’s Family Courts have a diagnosable mental health problem: substance abuse, bipolar disorder, major depression, personality disorders. For those involved in high-conflict cases, I believe that at least one party has a personality disorder because the characteristics of such a disorder are extreme interpersonal behavior, which most would consider the behaviors of abusing partners and children, hiding children, alienating children, hiding money, making false allegations and so forth. Many judges, lawyers, counselors and parents now agree with me on this.
It’s also important to realize that in many cases there is just one person with such a mental health disorder and in many other cases both clients have such a disorder. Therefore, it is especially important for decision-makers to understand what is going on to make accurate and protective decisions. The risk is that reasonable parents will be punished (restraining orders, supervised access with their children), while dysfunctional parents will be awarded primary custody and praised for their (hidden) misrepresentations to the court, which often encourages more dysfunctional behavior.
Based on research at one of the New Ways for Families programs our Institute has developed (which orders parents into short-term counseling before the big decisions are made), over 80% of high-conflict parents ordered into the program have a personality disorder. So this concern is starting to be validated by research. These are not normal families, for whom Family Courts were designed. This trend has been recognized as far back as 1997:
While performing our duties in all of these roles [as psychotherapists, mediators, custody evaluators], we have found that clients who engage in protracted adversarial processes, whether personal or litigious, show a high percentage of personality disorders. They make up a significant population of the descriptively difficult clients who consume an inordinate amount of time and energy of family lawyers and the family court system.”
Feinberg, R. and Greene, J.T. The Intractable Client: Guidelines for Working with Personality Disorders in Family Law, Family and Conciliation Courts Review. Vol. 35 No. 3, July 1997. 351-365.
The difference today is that the percentage of ordinary clients in Family Courts have significantly reduced, while the percentage of personality disordered clients has increased and may represent a majority – at least in parenting disputes.