Daniel Myers discusses how his study of psychology has impacted his approach to mental health issues in family law disputes
After almost two years of study I’m about to complete the Graduate Diploma of Psychology at Monash University. Enrolling in the course was sparked by my love of psychology and the science of human behaviour. There’s also clearly a lot of overlap with my family law work and so I wanted to reflect on some of the things its helped teach me.
As an example, I now have a much better understanding of personality disorders, being an issue I’ve commonly encountered as a family lawyer. Even for healthy individuals, the process of divorce is often a difficult and emotional experience. The high-stakes nature of family law often exacerbates existing conflict and former partners can fall into an adversarial process which is inherently stressful and causes further acrimony. Until I began studying psychology I was aware that some people have poor coping mechanisms and that high-conflict cases often feature parties with a personality disorder. However, I lacked a deep understanding of what a personality disorder meant in a clinical sense, why they are so prevalent in family law and how having a personality disorder can impact a person going through a divorce.
Having studied the area I now appreciate why the most common personality disorder in high-conflict disputes are those subsumed under Cluster B of the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that is used by psychologist and psychiatrists to diagnose mental health disorders.) Cluster B personality disorders (for example Borderline Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder) are characterized by dramatic, overly emotional or unpredictable thinking or behaviour and interactions with others. Those with Borderline Personality Disorder are especially susceptible because conflict with a former partner is likely to reinforce the person’s existing difficulty in maintaining stable interpersonal relationships.
As a result of my study, in future family law cases involving personality disorder I can give more informed advice about alternative dispute resolution processes that take into account the particular sensitivities of those people. For example, mediation and working in an inclusive, collaborative way may be more effective than court litigation. The competitive nature of litigation may simply aggravate the diagnosed person’s sense of distrust and suspicion which would prolong the dispute, causing greater legal expense and risk deteriorating their own psychological health.