The needy woman-disengaged man is probably the most volatile and contentious pattern that I have seen in more than 30 years of dealing with divorcing couples. These couples are far more likely to litigate, and although they all eventually get divorced, the legal divorce is seldom the end of the conflict. What follows is a brief description of the individuals, followed by a summary of how the divorce process unfolds for these unfortunate people and their children. It is important to remember that "it takes two to tango" and to a large extent, these patterns require both spouses in order to play out the drama. The more that each partner fits the individual patterns described below, the greater the chaos, and the more closely the divorce will follow the "worst case" scenario.
The most visible partner in this scenario and the likely "identified patient" is the woman. She is likely to be attractive, bright, sociable, well-dressed, articulate, and frequently insightful about her husband and his motivations but blind to her own. These women usually make a good first impression, unless they are having one of their frequent "melt downs"--then they will be anxious, depressed (even suicidal), irrational, and even paranoid. Logical thinking will be a challenge, and it will be hard for them to learn about the slow and confusing legal process, so they will be a difficult client to manage.
Emotionally, divorce represents the realization of the greatest fear of these women-being abandoned. These women will develop rapid and intense attachments to lawyers and mental health professionals, and will barrage them with phone calls and emails with little recognition of the impact of their behavior on others (just like in the rest of their lives). They will appear to be remarkably helpless and unable to follow through with tasks related to their lives or their divorces, despite the outward appearance of competence and success that may well be apparent in their social or professional lives. These women are frequently misusing either drugs or alcohol or both, and are highly addiction prone (it could be food, sex, caffeine, xanax, or wine). They have a very "black and white" view of the world, and readily split people and events into either "all good" or "all bad" categories, and are rarely able to be balanced and objective.
As mothers, these women tend to be overly involved ("enmeshed") with their children or inappropriately disengaged. When there is more than one child, both patterns could be evident, with a "good" child and "bad" child ("just like his/her father"). Moms frequently have real difficulties being separated from their children, making visitation very challenging, and with mom distorting or exaggerating the bad experiences of their children when visiting dad. This separation anxiety is frequently evident to the children, who often express the need to "take care of" mom or just act out and complain about dad to a degree that is not supported by the facts as a way to be loyal to mom.
Many, though not all, of these women meet most or all of the diagnostic criteria for the DSM-IV personality disorder "Borderline Personality"(BPD). Many mental health professionals, knowing that they are likely to be deposed or called to testify in a divorce, will avoid diagnosing BPD because of the stigma attached to this diagnosis. BPD is difficult to treat, takes 2-5 years of twice per week psychotherapy, and has a poor prognosis without treatment (chronic "stable instability" with vulnerability to recurrent depression and anxiety and heightened suicide risk). Many less well-trained mental health professionals won't recognize the pattern at all, and will naively support the exaggerated and distorted claims of mistreatment made by many of these women.
The men in this drama may be disengaged for a number of reasons, but they will almost always appear to be quite distant and emotionally uninvolved by the time of the divorce. Many times the men have filed for divorce, although a substantial number will be the respondent after the wife discovers some infidelity. These two sub-groups of men are quite different in their outward appearance and emotional makeup. First, the ego-driven husbands.
These men are smart, successful, extremely self-confident, and almost clinical in their approach to divorce. Many are executives and medical professionals and high profile community figures. They can be both calculating and cruel in their treatment of their spouse and children, and frequently quickly replace the wife with a "newer model". Their capacity for empathy is limited or absent, and they will treat everyone they deal with a replaceable commodity. Many of them have had one or more affairs with secretaries or assistants, or like Governor Spitzer, used high price escorts.
Ironically, these men share the same black and white thinking style as their spouse, and will find it hard to be objective about their now "worthless *****" of a wife. While their thinking is less impaired than that of their wife, their judgment is usually equally poor, and they can act in remarkably thoughtless and self-defeating ways because they believe that "the rules don't apply" to them, and that they won't get caught or punished.
These men probably meet some or all of the criteria to be called "narcissistic personality disorders (NPD)" in DSM-IV terms, but they will NOT be in treatment nor interested in it. Because they sincerely believe in their own superior intelligence and perfection, therapy is a joke to them.
The other group of disengaged men is more healthy than the ego-driven group, but nonetheless emotionally disengaged. These men usually make impulsive and poorly considered commitments to marry the needy, dependent, borderline women as a way to avoid being alone. They are usually quiet, smart, conforming men who are attracted to the charismatic, extraverted persona that these women present when they are "on the market". Usually, the men describe how their wives changed overnight once "the deal was sealed", and they are reluctant, regretful participants in the divorce process, not the "take no prisoners" litigants like the ego-driven men. After many unsuccessful attempts to work out compromises with these unstable and uncompromising women, the men withdraw from the wives out of frustration and in self-defense until they decide they have had enough.
The classic "War of the Roses" divorce scenario is played out between the borderline woman and the narcissistic man. Allegations are exchanged without consideration of the consequences for the children, and actual parental alienation--active attempts by both parents to smear the other parent and to enlist the children in the conflict--are the norm. Allegations of abuse or neglect are also the norm, and sometimes are true (the base rate for truthful abuse allegations in divorce cases is under 5%). Husbands almost always have control of the money in these relationships, and use the children as leverage to minimize their financial exposure in the final settlement. The women frequently want to use the legal system to extract "justice" for the behavior of their husbands, and make unwise decisions to prolong the litigation and thereby remain negatively engaged with the husbands. Husbands frequently accuse the wife of being "crazy" or "unstable" and a danger to the children, even though they have usually been uninvolved as parents prior to the divorce. Ironically, both spouses are in some respects "right" in their claims about the other, although the exaggeration and hyperbole makes both stories hard to believe.Litigation is usually protracted and needlessly expensive, and terminated in some kind of "lose-lose" settlement agreement for both property and custody of the children.
The big losers in this drama are the children, who usually end up spending more time with mom and never establishing a good connection to dad, even if he faithfully exercises visitation. Conflict between the parents usually continues throughout the child's life, leading to emotional behavioral problems, and and as the research shows, handicaps the children in their ability to form intimate relationships as an adult.
Discussion of the other patterns to follow.