While the term sociopath may not be well understood by many folks, those who have the misfortune of being married to one know all too well the pain and torment that these people can cause. Divorce is never easy, but divorcing a sociopath can be a uniquely difficult. During marriage, sociopaths are uncaring, manipulative, selfish, deceitful, intimidating and abusive. During a divorce situation, they will likely use these character defects to influence the proceedings, making the worst of an already bad situation.
This article was designed to discuss the basic traits of a one of these people as well as some of the common challenges you face when divorcing a sociopath. Also discussed are some of the reasons a family lawyer can be helpful in dealing with a spouse who is a sociopath. In some cases, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the effect these people have on the divorce proceedings.
It’s important to keep in mind that this page is not intended as legal advice. This page was written in a general way, drawing on our experience as well as the published literature on sociopaths publically available to anyone. Family law is complicated to begin with. But if you’re dealing with an ex partner who is also a sociopath, you are almost certain to need the help of a professional who can assess the situation and consider the best strategy.
What is a Sociopath?
Whether you know the clinical definition of sociopath or not, chances are you’re somewhat familiar with some of history’s famous examples. Notoriously extreme examples of persons believed to have been sociopaths include serial killers Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. Their horrific crimes demonstrated an abject lack of feeling for the suffering of their victims — a hallmark of the sociopathic mind.
While most sociopaths aren’t serial killers, those who are pathologically less mild can still be horrendously damaging to the lives of others, and are at the same time capable of blending in with the general population.
Another common term also used to describe sociopaths is “anti-social personality.” This doesn’t mean that these people are introverts who get uncomfortable at cocktail parties or other crowded spaces. Rather, it means that they don’t feel compelled to follow social rules like laws and other sources of authority.
Despite this social deficiency, a sociopath can mimic the behavior of well-adjusted people, and are often expert in using glib charm to befriend unsuspecting partners.
Sociopaths have been even known to thrive in the cutthroat corporate world. Despite notable deficiencies of character, sociopaths often hold themselves in high regard, which under the right circumstances can help them climb the social and corporate ladder. Some have speculated for instance that imprisoned investor Bernie Madoff is a sociopath. Maddoff is believed to have operated a Ponzi scheme resulting in the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.
A key trait that binds different sociopaths together is a lack of empathy, or an ability to relate to another person’s feelings. Sociopaths are clinically grouped with several other well-known disorders including narcissists, as well as those with histrionic and borderline personality disorders.
Each of these disorders is outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, a reference tool used by mental health professionals. Common traits of sociopaths include, among other things:
- Lying, deception and manipulation for profit or self amusement
- Impulsive behavior
- Blatant disregard for the safety of self and others
- A lack of remorse
It’s not uncommon for a sociopath to have a long history of sexual partners and be incapable of maintaining monogamous relationships. Understandably, relationships with sociopaths can be chaotic.
Discussing Sociopaths in the Media
In February of 2017, author, educator and attorney Susan J. Elliott wrote an article on divorcing a sociopath for Psychology Today. She noted that any divorce involves some degree of compromise involving things such as child custody, the division community property — even pets. However, in the case of a sociopath who only cares about him or herself, and doesn’t have the ability to see the situation from another person’s perspective, achieving compromise can be extremely difficult.
“Compromise is often futile and [sociopaths] attack in creative ways using anything they can,” Elliott writes. In some cases, the attack comes in the guise of superficial charm.
“Initially sociopaths exude charm, intelligence and grace,” explains Elliott. “They suck people in and then suck people dry. After you get to know them you realize they are not rational thinkers, they are accusers and manipulators without a shred of guilt or remorse about their behavior.”
All too often, a person becomes romantically involved with a sociopath thinking they’ve met the perfect person. But after years of learning the depth of their mistake, they decide to leave. This leads to a pressing question: If being married to a sociopath is difficult, what’s it like to divorce one? Continue reading to find out.
What’s It Like To Divorce A Sociopath?
Expect the Worst
The attributes that made you want to leave your sociopath in the first place will be weaponized in the divorce proceedings. This could mean intimidating phone calls, deceptive depositions and other manipulations.
The sociopath might make statements to you that make you worry about your safety, or the safety of your kids. In addition, the sociopath might try to manipulate those around you (judges, lawyers, clerks), if not through intimidation, then through superficial charm. If the sociopath has custody of the children, he or she might attempt to turn them against you through deception.
In an online article published at askthepsych.com, Psychologist Joseph Carver discussed some of the things a person might expect when divorcing a sociopath. For instance, if the sociopath is ordered to pay child support, he or she might purchase a new car in the hope that the debt will lower child support payments. Attempts to undermine your authority with the kids might also be employed.
“Understand that Personality Disorders have a tremendous sense of entitlement, “ writes Carver. He adds that a sociopath literally feels entitled to torture the family.
“You can expect to lose property, personal valuables, pictures, and even pets under some circumstances. An Antisocial will often hold property hostage as the deal in the divorce.”
Using the Children as Leverage
Because the sociopath lacks empathy, and seeks to do what is in his or her best interest, often times the family members who suffer the most are the children. While the law seeks to do what is in the best interests of the children when making decisions in a divorce situation, the sociopath’s ability to think in terms of others is severely limited (or non existent).
Don’t expect a sociopath to “rise above” in a divorce situation. Expect that they will use their own children as pawns in an attempt to seek a better outcome for themselves. There are instances when a sociopath might threaten to seek sole custody of a child knowing that such a threat will have the effect of intimidating the other parent into making financial concessions.
Financial Control Issues
If a person has no problem stooping to the level of using a child as leverage, such a person won’t have qualms about grabbing an unfair share of the finances either. The sociopath might use deception and manipulation to gain whatever advantage possible in the pursuit of money.
At the end of the day the sociopath’s attitude is “always look out for number one.” In some cases, a sociopath might lie about his or her income in an attempt to avoid paying a fair amount of spousal support. Or as mentioned in an earlier section on this page, such a person might make a large purchase, believing the debt will lead to lower spousal or child support payments.
Does The Law Provide Tools to Deal With Sociopaths in Court?
California’s Family Code encourages divorcing couples to settle rather than go to court. In cases where a person is clearly using manipulative tactics to stall or delay the negotiating process and litigation becomes necessary, the law provides recourse for those affected.
California Family Code § 271 allows the court to award attorney’s fees to a party in cases where the other party frustrates efforts to settle. Specifically, the law states the following:
“The court may base an award of attorney’s fees and costs on the extent to which the conduct of each party or attorney furthers or frustrates the policy of the law to promote settlement of litigation…An award of attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to this section is in the nature of a sanction.”
While this law provides some tools in dealing with a difficult former spouse during a divorce, getting a sociopath to follow the courts orders can be another source of frustration in and of itself.
Sociopaths and Court Orders
A mentioned earlier, another term commonly used to describe sociopaths is anti-social personality. This means that people with this disorder people don’t conform to rules laid out by society or legal authorities. In cases where a person of authority orders a sociopath to do something, the sociopath is likely to ignore the order.
This could mean added stress during a divorce proceeding wherein the sociopath is either ordered to pay child or spousal support, adhere to a specific schedule when visiting the kids or respect the terms of a non-disparagement clause.
It’s important not to become dejected if difficulties with any of these things arise, but rather to prepare yourself for a long road ahead. One possible tool the court has to punish parties who violate court orders is to find them in contempt. Contempt findings can come in any number of forms from fines to jail time.
Some Tips To Consider When Divorcing a Sociopath
Don’t Let Your Emotions Get the Best of You
Sociopaths are master manipulators. While they don’t empathize with the people they’re supposed to love, they know all too well how to push their buttons. It’s important that if your sociopathic spouse attempts to elicit an emotional response from you, that you don’t take the bait. Doing so can make you look unbalanced in front of the court, which could make your case more difficult in the long run.
This is why a qualified attorney is so important. In addition to having a trained legal mind, the family attorney is an objective party who can help you take a broader view of your case and remain goal oriented.
During this difficult time, it might also help to ask yourself what is in the best interests of your children. By asking this question, you take the focus away from the sociopath, and are better able to stick to your strategy. The sociopath by nature likes to toy with people’s emotions. Don’t give the sociopath fodder.
Get a Great Lawyer
It’s important that you hire a great family law attorney to help you when divorcing a sociopath. If possible, your lawyer should have a basic understanding of sociopathic behavior, as well as a solid understanding of reasonable expectations under the law. In addition, your lawyer should be an effective communicator — a very important trait when divorcing a sociopath.
Don’t be Afraid to Seek the Help of a Mental Health Professional
Dealing with both the stress of a divorce and a sociopathic former spouse can be doubly vexing. There is no shame in asking for help from a mental health professional. A qualified therapist can help you process your emotions, and look at the bigger picture. This will be helpful when it comes to you making rational decisions about your divorce situation. Remember, at the end of the day a sociopath is reckless. Take care of yourself and always keep in mind that rational, objective decisions will win the day.
Educate Yourself on Sociopathic Behavior
If you are reading this page, you’ve already taken a step toward trying to better understand sociopathic behavior. Knowledge is power. There are many resources out there detailing anecdotal and statistical information on this personality disorder. By understanding the mindset of a sociopath, you can hopefully guard against emotional responses including fear and anger. This will help you in your quest to finalize the end to the marriage. If you are seeing a mental health professional, you might use the opportunity to learn what you can about personality disorders.
Rely on Family and Friends For Financial and Emotional Support
Those who go through a divorce are often plagued by loneliness and despair. Uncertainty about the future, particularly if child custody is being threatened, can lead to crippling depression. If you are dealing with a sociopathic ex, these feelings can be magnified. Don’t resort to alcohol. That never helps.
It’s important that you seek comfort in friends and family to help you maintain morale while you are going through this difficult time. In addition to keeping your spirits up, friends and family can often help you financially as well spend time with your kids (who no doubt are experiencing grief of their own).
However, while one can find comfort in the company of friends and family during a divorce, one must be careful when it comes to family advice. People want to help, and they mean well. Often times, friends and families will want to share about their own divorce situations. This is fine, but always keep in mind that family law is complicated. A good attorney spends years rigorously studying codes and statutes, then puts that study into practice. His or her opinion should be valued above laypersons.
Carefully Consider Negotiations With the Sociopath and What is Reasonable
Most people don’t want to litigate. Any sane person knows that settling a case with a fair compromise is preferable to spending the time and money it takes to go to court.
It’s folly to assume the sociopath will act in a sane manner. As mentioned in the section above, sociopaths are manipulative, reckless and have an inflated sense of self worth. A person with these character traits is less likely than a normal person to commit to a fair compromise.
There may come a point when it becomes clear that the sociopath is wasting everyone’s time and that an agreement won’t be reached without going to court.
Whatever you decide when it comes to taking your ex to court, it is typically a good idea not to negotiate with the person in a one-on-one setting. In other words, whenever you meet with your ex to discuss something divorce related, make sure to have your lawyer present. Psychologist Dr. Joseph Carver makes a good point in his article about divorcing sociopaths.
“Don’t agree to face-to-face meetings alone, as an antisocial personality views face-to-face meetings as an abuse and intimidation opportunity,” Carver writes.
Prepare Yourself Mentally To Go To Court
Making the decision to go to court is never easy. Taking a divorce to this level means that civilized negotiation and compromise is impossible, and the parties have decided to leave major decisions to a judge.
But when dealing with an unreasonable sociopath, sometimes the only way out is to charge straight ahead (with the help of a good lawyer). This is not a decision to be taken casually, as going to court can be highly stressful and expensive. However, sometimes it is a necessary step when dealing with a former partner who won’t listen to reason.
By going to court, decisions about things like child custody, spousal support, and community property will be made by the judge. You want to do this only if you strongly believe the facts are on your side. This is where a good lawyer will be vital. He or she will be able to clearly explain the strengths and weaknesses of your case and make a recommendation so that you can make an informed decision.
And fortunately for some, there are divorce cases where only portions are handled by a judge while the rest negotiated between the parties. For instance, the judge might decide child custody, while the separating couple deals with the division of community property.
Remember, each case is different, and you should discuss the specifics of your case with a qualified family attorney.
Consulting an Attorney
Divorce is tough no matter what your situation. But if you’ve been involved in a mentally or physically abusive marriage with a sociopath, you have even more reason to enlist the help of a good lawyer. Chief among these reasons is the need to have an objective legal expert who’s familiar with your situation, and will help you to take the long view of what could be a difficult and trying experience. When it comes to dealing with a sociopath, there’s strength in numbers.
There are a few things you should consider when hiring an attorney. First, don’t hesitate to interview more than one potential candidate. When deciding on whom to hire, look for someone who has good communication skills. The person you hire to represent you during your divorce should be a great communicator, whether arguing in a courtroom setting, or giving you updates over the phone.
If you believe your soon-to-be former spouse is in fact a sociopath, ask if your lawyer has any experience or understanding of personality disorders. Knowing what type of person the other spouse is will be helpful when negotiating or litigating. In addition, your lawyer should be able to refer you to qualified mental health professionals who can help you process your own complex emotions during the divorce.
Carefully consider your own financial situation, and be sure to ask about your attorney’s billing procedures. Different family lawyers charge different rate structures. Some charge hourly fees, while others charge a flat fee. Some charge a retainer. It’s important that you understand these charges before signing an agreement so that there are no unexpected surprises after the finalization of your divorce.
While we hope that this article has given you some things to consider when divorcing a sociopath, it’s important to remember that no webpage can adequately detail the nuances of a divorce case. Family law is complex, and each situation is different. Child custody, property division, and the settlement of debt are all factors that must be considered before an overall solution is reached.
If you have a specific legal question, or want to learn how a family lawyer can help you, contact our office to schedule a consultation.