They sat silently on the couch across from me. This was our third session together, and it was still resistant and stagnant. He, checking his watch and shifting his weight from one side to the other, and she, cross-armed and leaning as far from him as she could. She only moved to sip her tea.
I was an intern, I was six months pregnant, and I was scared as hell to embark on our therapeutic journey; the three of us navigating their new life as a divorced couple with two small kids. The couple was seeking therapy in hopes to find a way to coParent. During their intake session, the tea-sipping ex-wife told me that her narcissistic husband ruined their marriage. He refuted her accusation by blaming her anxiety and nagging. Neither one of them mentioned their kids. I knew then; I was in for a wild ride.
With my growing belly and their increasing resistance towards each other, our sessions looked something like the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – where you’re not sure what you’re supposed to say or think … or feel or even understand. There were tons of blaming, tears, yelling and hurt. It was a mess. I was perplexed (and really uncomfortable carrying a nine-pound baby full term) and spent a lot of time in my supervisor’s office venting about their negativity. Why wasn’t I getting through to this ex-couple?
There was something more, and I was missing it. My then supervisor stared at me hopelessly when it struck me like a lightning bolt (this is the beauty of being an intern people, the learning!). I went back to our intake session and recalled the ex, tea-sipping wife’s straightforward claim that her husband was a narcissist. What if that was my hint from the therapy gods above? Maybe there was something more significant than typical client resistance – maybe there were actual mental health issues present.
After this light bulb moment and the birth of my first son, I realized two essential things. 1. Being a parent is tougher (and better) than you could ever expect and 2. Paying attention to one’s mental health during parenthood is even tougher.
While it’s easy to throw out labels and blame the opposing ex-partner for everything, actual and diagnosable mental health issues could be a contributing factor that can complicate parenting relationships to an even higher degree. Although it feels good to place blame on someone – and let’s be honest, an ex is the perfect scapegoat – seeking professional help to determine an appropriate diagnosis or lack thereof is the best route. But doing a little research is a good place to start too.
Since narcissism is such a favorite buzzword, let’s explore the other personality disorders that may be having an impact on your relationship with your ex. Please keep in mind that diagnosis and treatment are to be determined by a licensed psychologist/psychiatrist.
Personality Disorders Overview
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), personality disorders are “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible. [The behavior] is stable over time and leads to distress or impairment.”
In other words, those with an actual disorder exhibit certain traits again and again. These behaviors then lead to breakdowns in their relationships and personal lives.
Let’s explore some personality disorder examples – other than narcissism – that may be affecting how you, your ex, and your children communicate.
Paranoid Personality Disorder
Paranoid personality disorder is characterized by a pattern of distrust and overly suspiciousness of people. These types often think of others as cunning or manipulative.
Example: “Why are your neighbor’s lights on after dark? Do you think they’re working for the FBI and their house is a base camp? Do you think they’re watching you and the kids?”
Schizoid Personality Disorder
People with Schizoid Personality Disorder are often emotionally distant. They may prefer to be alone and are overly disinterested in others and connecting with people. They often appear indifferent to criticism or praise.
Example: You get a call from the school that your child fell off the monkey bars and may have fractured his/her elbow. You immediately call your ex, and they seem a little too calm and collected, almost uninterested in what you have to say.
Schizotypal Personality Disorder
Individuals with this type may express “magical beliefs,” delusional thinking, or may have an odd or eccentric appearance (as in dress).
Example: “WHAT?? Did you make pasta for the kid’s dinner on Wednesday? You know that’ll bring everyone bad luck. You must be crazy to do something like this. I’m going to put on my magic socks to scare away all the bad luck.”
These individuals can be deceitful, impulsive, and have a difficulty conforming to social norms/rules. If they do something offensive or damaging they often show no remorse.
Example: “When you were pulling into the parking lot for our kid exchange I think you ran over someone’s cat!l” – their response would be something to the effect of “I did it on purpose, I hate those things. Let’s go back and burn it!”
Borderline Personality Disorder
These types demonstrate patterns of unstable relationships, marked impulsivity, intense anger. They can have a very “push” and “pull” attitude towards relationships with emotional dysregulation.
Example: “If you don’t let me have the kids this weekend, I’ll go on a drinking binge, and it’ll be all your fault.”
Histrionic Personality Disorder
Those with Histrionic personality disorder exhibit a constant need to be the center of attention, can be sexually deviant and provocative, and are often suggestible, overly theatrical and dramatic.
Example: “I know it’s our daughter’s birthday but why would you schedule her birthday party when I have my massage!”
Avoidant Personality Disorder
Parents with Avoidant Personality Disorder may have a preoccupation with criticism or rejection, especially in a social setting. They may believe they are inferior and may be exceptionally fearful of disapproval or not being liked.
Example: “I can’t meet you at the doctor’s office for our son’s checkup. The doctor doesn’t ever talk to me anyway. Just tell me what he says, if you think I’ll even understand it. I know you and the doctor think I’m too stupid to understand anything.”
Dependent Personality Disorder
These types have difficulty doing much of anything on their own. They may need excessive amounts of advice and nurturing (think stage 5 clinger).
Example: “I don’t think I can drop the kids off without the nanny to help explain where the drop off even is. I don’t want to do it, I’ll just drop them off with you, and you take them.” And then they call/text/email several times a day requesting advice or assistance.
Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
First, this type is not to be mistaken for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. People with this personality disorder have a preoccupation with rules, order, and control. They can be inflexible, perfectionists.
Example: “It’s Friday at 3:07 and I don’t have the kids yet. Everything is off track now. You told me you’d be here by 3:00 pm. I’ve been waiting for seven minutes! I don’t understand why you are so inept.”
If your ex-spouse or partner exhibits some of the behaviors above it doesn’t automatically mean they have said disorder (and the examples are a little over the top!). Rather, this is intended to get the discussion started. Could there be a real mental health issue that’s interfering with your ability to successfully coParent? These potential talking points are things to consider and will hopefully lead you to a new understanding of your ex.
Finally, while you may not know if the situation is diagnosable, temporary, or permanent, what is most important is that your child feels supported, loved, and taken care of and that they do not hear criticism of the other parent. Dealing with a difficult coParent isn’t easy but redirecting your energy into being the best parent you can be is an excellent way to offset any negativity or lack of support you’re receiving from the other side.