Updated: April 2, 2020
An individual with a personality disorder can have a difficult time maintaining socially appropriate interpersonal relationships? In romantic relationships they can be controlling, abusive, manipulative partners who can ruin not only the relationship, but our self-esteem, finances, and reputation.
As a parent, they can put the “D” in Dysfunctional Family and be the parent that abuses, neglects, ignores, or psychologically damages their children.
As a friend they may be irresponsible, selfish, unreliable, dishonest, and often create significant problems in our life.
As a neighbor, they may spread rumors, create disharmony in the neighborhood, and steal our lawnmower.
As a family member, they can maintain themselves as the center of attention and keep the family in an uproar or they may be the 45 year/old brother who has never worked and remains dependent on the family for his support.
They may be the brother or sister who verbally bullies and intimidates others with their temper tantrums.
As a coworker they may be manipulative, unethical, dishonest, and willing to damage co-workers to achieve their employment goals. On the street they can be the criminals, con-artists, and people-users who purposefully damage others then quickly move on to avoid detection.
Further research is needed to better understand the dysfunctional mental state associated with personality disorders in hopes of developing and then offering more effective treatment for individuals in need.
In over three decades of experience of dealing with victims, it’s clear that the majority of emotional victims I see in clinical practice are actually victims of an individual with a “Personality Disorder“.
- What are Personality Disorders?
- The Relationship Destroyers – Cluster B
- Identifying Personality Disorders
- Core Personality Features of Cluster B
- Unconscious or Calculated Behavior?
- What Does This Mean For The Victims?
What are Personality Disorders?
The “Personality Disorder” has been around for many years. For several centuries, professionals working with all types of people recognized that some individuals clearly thought and acted differently – without “normal” feelings, attitudes, behaviors, and interactions.
In 1835 Dr. Pritchard suggested the term “moral insanity” to reflect the fact that these individuals were not insane by the standards of the day, yet had significant differences in their behavior, attitudes, ethics, morality, emotional expressions, and reactions to situations.
Despite their significant differences when compared to others in their culture, the individual exhibited little emotional or social distress.
Personality Disorders are individuals who have a long history of personality, behavior, emotional, and relationship difficulties.
This group is said to have a “personality disorder” – an enduring pattern of inner experience (mood, attitude, beliefs, values, etc.) and behavior (aggressiveness, instability, etc.) that is significantly different than those in their family or culture.
These dysfunctional patterns are inflexible and intrusive into almost every aspect of the individual’s life.
These patterns create significant problems in personal and emotional functioning and are often so severe that they lead to distress or impairment in all areas of their life. (Source: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition)
Historically, Personality Disorders are divided into three groups of clusters:
- Cluster A personality disorders are individuals who have odd, eccentric behaviors. Paranoid, Schizoid, and Schizotypal Personalities fall into this cluster.
- Cluster B are personalities that are highly dramatic, both emotionally and behaviorally. Antisocial, Borderline, Narcissistic, and Histrionic Personality are in this group.
- Cluster C are personalities characterized by being anxious and fearful. Avoidant, Dependent, and Obsessive-Compulsive Personality fall into this cluster.
This section went through a revision in the updated version of the DSM-5 with the major change being personality disorders are no longer found coded on Axis-II, as the “Axis” system was causing some confusion for diagnostic measures.
The Relationship Destroyers – Cluster B
In considering individuals who create the most damage to social and personal relationships, the abusers, manipulators, “players”, controllers, and losers are found in Cluster B.
For this reason, this article will focus on the behaviors associated with Cluster B personality disorders.
In the general population, the largest number of personality disorders fall in the Cluster B group. There are four personality disorders in Cluster B.
Individuals exhibit a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others and rules of society.
The Antisocial Personality ranges from individuals who are chronically irresponsible, unsupportive, con-artists to those who have total disregard for the rights of others and commit criminal acts with no remorse, including those involving the death of victims.
In clinical practice, the Antisocial Personality has near-total selfishness and typically has a pattern of legal problems, lying and deception, physical assault and intimidation, no regard for the safety of others, unwillingness for meet normal standards for work/support/parenting, and no remorse.
A pervasive pattern of intense yet unstable relationships, mood, and self-perception. Impulse control is severely impaired.
Common characteristics of Borderline Personality include:
- panic fears of abandonment
- unstable social relationships
- unstable self-image
- impulsive/self-damaging acts such as promiscuity/substance abuse/alcohol use
- recurrent suicide thoughts/attempts
- self-injury and self-mutilation
- chronic feelings of emptiness
- inappropriate yet intense anger
- fleeting paranoia
A pervasive pattern of excessive emotional display and attention-seeking. Individuals with this personality are excessively dramatic and are often viewed by the public as the “Queen of drama” type of individual. They are often sexually seductive and highly manipulative in relationships.
They display a pervasive preoccupation with admiration, entitlement, and egotism. Individuals with this personality exaggerate their accomplishments/talents, have a sense of entitlement, lack empathy or concern for others, are preoccupied with envy and jealousy, and have an arrogant attitude.
Their sense of entitlement and inflated self-esteem are unrelated to real talent or accomplishments. They feel entitled to special attention, privileges, and consideration in social settings.
This sense of entitlement also produces a feeling that they are entitled to punish those who do not provide their required respect, admiration, or attention.
Identifying Personality Disorders
When encountering the victims of emotional and physical abuse, the Personality Disorder individual is already present in their lives as a mother, father, sibling, spouse, partner, or relative.
The majority of clients with difficulties related to their childhood find a Personality Disorder as a parent. For many, they have found themselves in a romantic relationship or marriage with a Personality Disorder.
Others discover they are working with a Personality Disorder as a co-worker, supervisor, or supervisee. A smaller group finds they are victims of the severe behavior of a Personality Disorder and have been assaulted, robbed, traumatized, or manipulated.
Personality Disorders are present in 10 to 15 percent of the adult population with Cluster B accounting for approximately 9 percent based on research. At such a high percentage, it’s important that we learn to identify these individuals in our lives.
A failure to identify them may create significant risk. While most of our contact with a Personality Disorder may be brief, the more involved they are in our lives, the higher the risk of emotional, social, and other damage. For this reason, it’s helpful to identify some of the characteristics of a personality disorder.
Core Personality Features of Cluster B
Mental health professionals have identified ten personality disorders, each with their own pattern of behaviors, emotionality, and symptoms.
However, in my observation, all Cluster B Personality Disorders have core personality features that serve as the foundation for their specific personality disorder.
We often hear the phrase “It’s All About Me”. When making decisions, a healthy person weighs the needs and concerns of others as well as their own. A Personality Disorder weighs only their needs and concerns.
A Personality Disorder may use money to feed their family for their own purpose. A brother with a Personality Disorder may intimidate an elderly parent for money or manipulate a legal situation to eliminate siblings from an inheritance.
In most situations, if we are contacted by a Personality Disorder, the contact is for THEIR purpose, not ours.
2. Refusal to Accept Personal Responsibility for Their Behavior
Individuals with a Personality Disorder almost never accept personal responsibility for their behavior. They blame others, uses excuses, claim misunderstandings, and then depict themselves as the victim in the situation.
Those that are physically abusive actually blame the victims of their abuse for the assault. Victims often hear “This is your fault! Why did you make me angry?” This aspect of a Personality Disorder is very damaging when the Personality Disorder is a parent.
They blame the children for their abusive, neglectful, or dysfunctional behavior. Children are told they are responsible for the temper tantrums, alcohol/substance abuse, unemployment, poverty, unhappiness, etc. of their parent. During a divorce, a Personality Disorder parent often blames the children.
Individuals with a Personality Disorder don’t think, reason, feel, and behave normally. However, they typically justify ALL of their behaviors. Their justification often comes from their view that they have been victims of society or others and are therefore justified in their manipulative, controlling, criminal or abusive behaviors. A common justification in criminals is to blame the victim for the crime as when hearing “It’s his fault (the victim) that he got shot. He should have given me the money faster.” Healthy adults find it impossible to reason with a Personality Disorder, finding their justifications impossible to understand.
Individuals with a Personality Disorder have a tremendous sense of entitlement, a sense that they deserve respect, money, fame, power, authority, attention, etc.
Some feel they are entitled to be the center of attention and when that doesn’t happen, they are entitled to create a scene or uproar to gain that attention.
Entitlement also creates a justification to punish others in the Personality Disorder. If you violate one of their rules or demands, they feel entitled to punish you in some way.
5. Shallow Emotions
Healthy people are always amazed and astonished that a person with a Personality Disorder can quickly detach from a partner, move on, and exhibit very little in the way of remorse or distress.
A Personality Disorder can find another partner following a breakup, often within days. These same individuals can also quickly detach from their family and children.
They can become angry with their parents and not contact them for years. A Personality Disorder can abandon their children while blaming the spouse/partner for their lack of support and interest.
Their ability to behave in this manner is related to their “Shallow Emotions”. The best way to think of Shallow Emotions is to have a great $300.00 automobile (192 euros). You have a limited investment in the automobile and when it’s running great you have no complaints.
You take the effort to maintain maintenance on the vehicle as long as the costs are low. If it develops costly mechanical difficulties, it’s cheaper to dispose of it and get another $300.00 automobile that will run well.
Also, if you move a large distance, you leave it behind because it’s more costly to transport it. A Personality Disorder has shallow emotions and often views those around them as $300.00 autos.
Their emotional investment in others is minimal. If their partner is too troublesome, they quickly move on. If parents criticize their behavior, they end their relationship with them…until they need something.
6. Situational Morality
A Personality Disorder takes pride in being able to “do what I gotta do” to have their demands/needs met. They have few personal or social boundaries and in the severe cases, do not feel bound by laws of the land and quickly engage in criminal activity if needed.
The motto of a Personality Disorder is “the end justifies the means”. Situational morality creates rather extreme behaviors and many Personality Disorders have no hesitation to harm themselves or others to meet their needs.
Activities often seen as manipulative are tools of the trade for a Personality Disorder and include lying, dishonesty, conning behavior, intimidation, scheming, and acting.
Many Personality Disorders are “social chameleons” and after evaluating a potential victim/partner, alter their presentation to be the most effective.
Severe Personality Disorders have no hesitation about self-injury and will cut themselves, overdose, threaten suicide, or otherwise injure themselves with the goal of retaining their partner using guilt and obligation.
7. Narcissism and Ineffective Lives
A Personality Disorder has a strong influence on the life and lifestyle of the individual. Cluster B personality disorders often have two lives – their “real life” and the imaginary life they present to others that is full of excuses, half-truths, deceptions, cons, lies, fantasies, and stories prepared for a specific purpose.
Physical abusers who were forcibly and legal removed from their children and spouse develop a story that the in-laws conspired with the police to separate them from the children they love so deeply.
Jail time is often reinterpreted as “I took the blame for my friend so he could continue to work and support his family”.
A major finding in a Personality Disorder is an ineffective life – reports of tremendous talent and potential but very little in the way of social or occupational success.
It’s a life of excuses and deceptions. Narcissistic and Antisocial “losers” often promise romantic cruises that never take place or have a reason that their partner needs to place an automobile in his/her name.
Their lives are often accompanied by financial irresponsibility, chronic unemployment, legal difficulties, and unstable living situations in the community.
Their behavior often emotionally exhausts those around them – something the Personality Disorder explains with “My family and I have had a falling out.”
We can be assured that no matter what “real life” situation is present in the life of the Personality Disorder, there will be a justification and excuse for it.
8. Social Disruption
There is never a calm, peaceful, and stable relationship with a Cluster B Personality Disorder! Their need to be the center of attention and control those around them assures a near-constant state of drama, turmoil, discord, and distress.
An individual with a Personality Disorder creates drama and turmoil in almost every social situation. Holidays, family reunions, outings in the community, travel, and even grocery shopping are often turned into a social nightmare.
The Personality Disorder also creates disruption in their family system. They are the focus of feuds, grudges, bad feelings, jealousy, and turmoil. If you have a member of your family that you hate to see arrive at a family reunion or holiday dinner – he or she probably has a Personality Disorder.
9. Manipulation As A Way of Life
To obtain our daily personal, social, and emotional needs a healthy individual has a variety of strategies to use including taking personal action, politely asking someone, making deals, being honest, etc.
Healthy individuals also use manipulation as one of many social skills – buying someone a gift to cheer them up, making comments and giving hints that something in desired, etc.
For the Personality Disorder, despite the many social strategies available, manipulation is their preferred method of obtaining their wants and needs.
The manipulations of a Personality Disorder – when combined with shallow emotions, entitlement, and being self-centered – can be extreme. To obtain their goals, an Antisocial Personality may physically threaten, harass, intimidate, and assault those around them.
Histrionic Personalities may create dramatic situations, threaten self-harm, or create social embarrassment. Narcissistic Personalities may send police and an ambulance to your home if you don’t answer their phone calls, using the excuse that they were concerned about you.
Their real goal is to assure you that their phone calls MUST be answered or you will pay the consequences. Borderline Personalities may self-injure in your physical presence.
In a relationship with a Personality Disorder we are constantly faced with a collection of schemes, situations, manipulations, and interactions that have a hidden agenda…their agenda.
10. The Talk and Behavior Gap
We know how people are by two samples of their personality – their talk and their behavior. A person who is honest has talk/conversation/promises that match their behavior almost 100%.
If he/she borrows money and tells you they will repay you Friday, and then pays you Friday, you have an honest person. When we observe these matches frequently, then we can give more trust to that individual in the future.
The wider the gap between what a person says/promises and what they do – the more they are considered dishonest, unreliable, irresponsible, etc. Due to the shallow emotions and situational morality often found in a Personality Disorder, the gap between talk and behavior can be very wide.
A Personality Disorder can often assure their spouse that they love them while having an extramarital affair, borrow money with no intention of paying it back, promise anything with no intention of fulfilling that promise, and assure you of their friendship while spreading nasty rumors about you.
A rule: Judge a person by their behavior more than their talk or promises.
11. Dysfunctional Parents
Individuals with a Personality Disorder are frequently parents. However, they are frequently dysfunctional parents. Personality Disorder parents often see their children as a burden to their personal goals, are often jealous of the attention their children receive, often feel competitive with their older children, and often attempt to obtain their personal goals through their children.
Personality Disorder parents control their children through manipulation with little concern for how their parenting behavior will later influence the lives or the personality of the child.
Personality Disorder parents are often hypercritical, leaving the child with the feeling that they are incompetent or unworthy. In extreme cases, Antisocial parents criminally neglect, abuse, or exploit their children – often teaching them to become criminals.
Criminal parents often use their children to steal or carry drugs to avoid criminal charges as an adult, allowing the children to face the legal charges.
Spouses with a Personality Disorder are often jealous of the attention their partner provides to children in the home, frequently targeting the child for verbal abuse in their jealousy.
The narcissism and shallow emotions in a Personality Disorder parent leave the children feeling unloved, unwanted, unworthy, and unappreciated.
Unconscious or Calculated Behavior?
When we look at the emotions, attitudes and behaviors of an individual with a Personality Disorder we eventually begin to question: Are these characteristics calculated and purposeful or are they unconscious behaviors that are not under their control?
In working with Personality Disorders, we see both.
The majority of the attitudes we seen in Personality Disorders are very long-standing and have been present since their teen years.
Blaming others is a classic personality disorder feature and after believing this for many years, people with a Personality Disorder may not truly feel they are responsible for their behavior – even their criminal behavior.
They have rethought, reworked, and excused their behaviors to the point that they fail to see that they are the common denominator in all their difficulties. Convicted criminals, with crimes ranging from auto theft to homicide, all have a similar attitude – “Incarceration is unfair”.
They don’t factor victims into their crimes in any way. For this reason, those with a Personality Disorder have very little understanding and insight into their attitudes that ruin relationships.
Victims will assure you that trying to explain a normal, healthy position to an individual with a Personality Disorder is almost impossible.
In a Personality Disorder, over many years the individual develops impaired ways of relating to others. These impaired ways of relating eventually become their only way of relating to others.
Beginning in their childhood, as an adult they now only know how to relate to others with intimidation, threat, anger, manipulation, and dishonesty.
This defective social style continues, even when those around them are socially skilled, concerned, accepting, and loving.
Justifying their behavior with these long-standing attitudes, individuals with a Personality Disorder can be very calculated, purposeful, and manipulative in their behavior toward others.
Their decision making, coping strategies, and manipulations are often well-planned to meet their agenda. Financially, many will purposefully legally obligate you to pay for their debts.
They may steal money from you, justifying that behavior with “I cut the grass for three years – I deserve it.” It is this combination of long-standing attitudes and calculated behavior that makes a Personality Disorder dangerous in any interpersonal relationship.
What Does This Mean For The Victims?
In a relationship with a Personality Disorder, several basic truths are present.
- The victim in a relationship with a Personality Disorder did not create the Personality Disorder. Many Personality Disorders blame the victim for their assaults, lies, bad behavior, deceptions, intimidations, etc. In truth, the Personality Disorder has those behaviors if the victim is present or absent. Victims don’t cause themselves to be assaulted – they are involved with an abusive and assaultive individual.
- Changing the behavior of the victim does not change the behavior of the Personality Disorder. Many victims become superstitious and feel that they can control the behavior of the Personality Disorder in their life by changing their behavior. This is often a temporary fix, meaning only that you are now meeting the demands of the Personality Disorder. When the Personality Disorder feels justified, they return to their behavior with no concern for changes in the behavior of the victim. Loving sharks doesn’t protect us if we find ourselves dripping blood in a shark tank.
- A Personality Disorder is a permanent, long-standing pattern. Time doesn’t change these personalities. If your mother or father had a personality disorder in your childhood, returning home after twenty years will find their old behavior alive and well.
- Marrying, having a baby with, moving in with, etc. actually makes their dysfunctional behavior worse. The presence of stress exaggerates and amplifies our normal personality characteristics. Mentally healthy yet shy individuals become shyer under stress. The stress of additional responsibilities actually increases the bad behavior of a Personality Disorder.
- When involved in any manner with a Personality Disorder – as their partner, parent, child, sibling, friend, etc. – we must not only recognize their behaviors but develop a strategy to protect ourselves. Many of our strategies must focus on protecting our emotional stability, our finances, and our other relationships. As a parent, if our adult son or daughter has a Personality Disorder, we must protect ourselves from their behaviors that might jeopardize our lifestyle and life. As the child of a parent with a Personality Disorder, we must often protect our immediate family and children from the bad behavior of our parent. It’s important to remember that with a Personality Disorder – THEIR survival and well-being is their priority – not the health or well-being of those around them.
As we go through life, we encounter a variety of individuals. We also develop a variety of relationships with others including family members, neighbors, fellow workers, friends, and familiar faces.
Healthy relationships seem to be healthy in the same way – having characteristics of respect, concern for others, affection, cooperation, honesty, mutual goals, etc.
A relationship with a Personality Disorder is totally different. That 9 or 10 percent of adults with a “Cluster B” Personality Disorder can create significant difficulties in our life.
In brief contacts they are often troublesome – the uncle who is a con artist or the sister-in-law that nobody can tolerate at holiday dinners. When we bring them into our lives however, a Personality Disorder rapidly takes over and our life becomes centered on their needs, demands, and goals.
To achieve their self-centered objectives, the Personality Disorder becomes the controller, abuser, manipulator and user in relationships. The early identification of individuals who create unhealthy relationships can save us from years of heartache as well as damage to our personality, self-esteem, finances, and lifestyle.
I have also addressed the issues associated with remaining in an abusive or dysfunctional relationship in an article entitled “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser”. Both articles are available on my website at www.drjoecarver.com or at www.counsellingresource.com
Joseph M Carver, Ph.D.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Anxiety Disorders. In Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).
Dimaggio, G., & Brüne, M. (2016). Dysfunctional understanding of mental states in personality disorders: What is the evidence? Comprehensive Psychiatry, 64, 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.comppsych.2015.09.014